Britain is world renowned for its stodgy, uninspiring cuisine. (Which should explain the deep suspicion Britons have of most foreign cuisine, unless it's been suitably adapted for the British palette.) BBC sitcom Goodness Gracious Me explains it best via the 'going for an English' sketch - a play on the popular British past time of 'going for an Indian (i.e. curry)'. "What's the blandest thing on the menu?" asks one character, later encouraging another, "Just have something a little bland, huh? Waiter, what have you got that is not totally tasteless?" Because, the truth is that traditional British fare is far from a taste sensation for those who haven't been raised on the stuff. Still, read on, and you can judge for yourself...
The best kind of breakfast most British people can imagine is the full breakfast, generally known as the 'Full English' or 'fry-up'. The essential components of the Full English are: sausage, fried bacon (we usually use back bacon, i.e. canadian bacon, rather than the common US 'streaky' bacon), fried or poached egg, baked beans, fried mushrooms, fried tomato, black pudding (pork blood and oatmeal), toast with butter and / or fried bread. Extras might include hash browns, brown sauce (Americans often mistake this for off tasting BBQ sauce in taste tests, which should give you some idea), and bubble and squeak (mashed potato mixed with left over veg, typically cabbage) or other regional variants. This will all be washed down with a mug of tea, probably served with milk and two sugars.
|The Full English.|
This hearty breakfast stands in stark contrast to what we would call a 'continental breakfast'. A buffet style choice of cereals, yogurt, slices of cheese and cold meats, croissants, fruit juice, tea and coffee. This is the kind of breakfast people encounter on package foreign holidays and at economy and limited service hotels in the UK. Continental breakfasts are, as the name suggests, foreign, and therefore sometimes viewed as slightly suspect. (Especially in 1970s and 1980s sitcoms.)
Neither of these breakfasts are likely to be eaten everyday, one because it's encountered primarily in the hospitality sector, and the other because doing so would probably kill you. The normal, everyday breakfast consists of things like toast and marmalade / jam (i.e. jelly) or scrambled eggs, porridge, fruit, or boxed cereal. There are lots of different cereals on the market, some of the best known being basic Kellogs varieties, Weetabix, Shreddies, Cheerios, and Rice Krispies. Very sugary cereals like Fruit Loops are much less common in the UK - with some common US flavouring ingredients like high fructose corn syrup absent anyway because of EU production quotas - meaning kids have to settle for Frosties or Coco Pops. A limited range of Pop Tarts is available in the UK, but they're more of a treat than a regular breakfast item. Old people might have kippers (i.e. smoked herrings) for breakfast. The accompanying drink will likely be tea, coffee, or, if you're on a health kick, orange juice.
Pancakes and waffles are not common breakfast foods in the UK; the former is usually served in crepe form as a dessert, and the latter is better known here as the potato waffle, suitable for serving with main meals. Around 32% of school pupils and 43% of adults regularly skip breakfast altogether.
The custom of eating a mid-morning snack survives as around about 11am is morning break time at school, and tea break time at work. Ideally people should get one of their 5 A Day and eat a piece of fruit, but it's far more usual to have a cup of tea or coffee - pretty much everyone and every workplace has an electric kettle to facilitate this; I once saw somebody in a US TV show make a cup of coffee in a microwave and remain astounded to this day - and a couple of biscuits (i.e. cookies - the word 'cookie' specifically refers to a chocolate chip cookie in the UK. US biscuits, the kind served with gravy, don't exist here). The most common biscuits include: digestives, chocolate digestives, Rich Tea, custard creams, and Jaffa Cakes (the subject of constant debate over their biscuit vs. cake status). For more info on the UK and its love of biscuits, there's a good BBC4 documentary called 'Nigel Slater's Great British Biscuit'.
|Plate of biscuits - photo by Caro Wallis.|
At school, children will likely be eating a bag of crisps (i.e. chips). The best selling brand is Walkers, known as Lay's in the US. Basic crisp flavours are: ready salted, salt and vinegar, cheese and onion, prawn cocktail, roast chicken, and smoky bacon. 'Crisps' can also refer to all manner of potato and corn snacks that come in packets, like: Wotsits, Quavers, Space Raiders, and Chipsticks. They'll be washed down with cartons of fruit juice (i.e. a juicebox), bottles of fruit juice (like Robinson's Fruit Shoot), or a bottle of pop. Pop is the generic word for a fizzy drink, like 'soda' or 'soft drink' in the US. The best selling brand in the UK is Coca-Cola, followed by Lucozade, and Pepsi. Other popular brands include Lilt, Fanta, 7 Up, and Tango. In Scotland pop is often generically termed 'juice' - making those Coca-Cola bottles with names on endlessly hilarious - and Irn Bru remains one of the best selling brands there.
Lunch / Dinner
Many people call the midday meal 'dinner' in the UK, something which is ingrained into the school system where canteen staff are better known as 'dinnerladies', though the terms are interchangeable - I'll just write whichever comes naturally. It is a fairly light meal, typically eaten around noon or 1pm, depending on your place of work. There is growing concern that too many people, particularly office staff, eat dinner at their desk rather than going out for lunch. Given the decline of the workplace canteen and the fact that it's tipping down with rain outside for about 80% of the year, the trend really shouldn't be that surprising.
|BBC sitcom dinnerladies followed the lives and loves of a group of canteen staff.|
Probably the most common thing to eat at this time of day is the sandwich. Most surveys find that the sandwich is, in fact, Britain's favourite food. It will usually consist of white bread, butter / margarine, and typical sandwich fillings like slices of cheese or cold meat, or sandwich spreads ranging from coronation chicken to pate to Marmite to jam (i.e. jelly). Peanut butter is not a popular substance in the UK, so the combination of peanut butter and jelly are just about the last thing you would expect (and hope) to find in your sandwich. Typical accompaniments to the sandwich are a bag of crisps and a bottle of pop. Children will find more variety in their packed lunches - fruit, yougurts and novelly packaged yogurts like Frubes, cheese snacks like Cheesestrings and Dairylea Cheese Triangles, and chocolate biscuit bars like Penguins and Clubs being the norm.
For school children, and adults lucky enough to still have one, the canteen is the other obvious option. Traditionally school dinners consisted of things like boiled potatoes, vegetables and roast meat, followed by a stodgy pudding like Spotted Dick and custard. In more recent times this had been replaced with the likes of pizza, chicken nuggets, and chips (i.e. thickly cut fries), followed by jelly (i.e. jello) and ice cream. TV chef, the mockney Jamie Oliver, launched a successful campaign in 2004 to improve school dinners and drive the poor old Turkey Twizzler from existence. (RIP.) Adults had no such champion, and work canteens continue to serve a steady stream of soup, stew, lasagne, cottage pie, and chips.
If you do go out for lunch, you have two main options. The first is to pick up a sandwich, probably in a meal deal from the nearest supermarket, a bakery like Greggs, or a fast food chain like Subway. Coffee shops and cafes are loosely included in this first option, though the latter does serve some hot meals - usually of the breakfast, fry-up variety. The second is the pub lunch. Once upon a time pubs were a place where you drank alcohol and, if you were lucky, ate a packet of nuts or pork scratchings. These days the so-called 'Gastropub' reigns supreme, serving traditional British fare at low prices. The best known chain is Wetherspoons, and they currently operate over 900 pubs around the country. The 'pub grub' they serve includes: steak and ale pie, cottage / shepherd's pie, bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potato), lasagne, chilli con carne, burgers, ploughman's lunch, pasties, fish and chips (most pub meals come with chips, mashed potato, roast potatoes, or jacket potato), scampi, gammon steak, and roast dinner.
|The Sunday Roast.|
The roast dinner is the quintessential English meal, and is still commonly eaten all across the country on Sundays, when it is known as the Sunday roast. It complies with the 'meat and two veg' culinary principle favoured in the UK - and that term also serves as slang for the male genitalia, what this says about British food I'll leave for you to decide. The typical roast dinner consists of roast meat (usually chicken, beef or lamb), boiled or steamed vegetables (options include peas, carrots, broccoli, green beans, cabbage, cauliflower, etc), boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, and yorkshire puddings. The whole lot will then be covered in gravy, usually prepared with the help of Oxo stock cubes or Bisto powder. Other common accompaniments include roast parsnips, apple sauce (for use with roast pork), redcurrant jelly, mint sauce (for use with roast lamb), and, sad but true, tomato ketchup.
The Sunday roast is also special in that it, like the canteen lunch, is typically followed by a dessert, pudding, sweet or afters (that last three are older terms but still in fairly common use). Traditional desserts include things like treacle sponge and custard, spotted dick, jam roly-poly, and bread and butter pudding. These are all very heavy and filling, so families with children might have gone for something like trifle at tea time instead.
|A very tasty looking cream tea.|
For most people afternoon tea means, if anything, an afternoon tea break, possibly accompanied by another couple of biscuits.
A word on tea: Tea first arrived in the UK in the seventeenth century as a fashionable, luxury good. In the first part of the eighteenth century imports of tea quadrupled, and its usage began to trickle down the class system until tea became the beverage of choice for near enough everyone. (During their temperate moments, at least.) The Boston Tea Party of 1773, much like the entire American Revolution, is little understood in the UK - the teaching of our chequered, colonialist past not being a major focus of the school curriculum - but for contemporaries it did manage to cement tea drinking as a patriotic past time.
By Victorian times tea drinking was an integral part of everyday life, and it continued to be so right into the twentieth century. Jaunty tea related tunes did particularly well as patriotic pick-me-ups during WW2. There was Jack Buchanan's 'Everything Stops For Tea' (oh, the factories may be roaring / with a boom-a-lacka, zoom-a-lacka, wee / but there isn't any roar when the clock strikes four / everything stops for tea), 'Tea For Two', and Binnie Hale's 'Nice Cup Of Tea' which really highlights how much tea your average Brit is likely to consume ~
I like a nice cup of tea in the morning, for to start the day you see. And when I get the breakfast in, well, my idea of sin is a fourth or a fifth cup of tea. I like a nice cup of tea with me dinner, and a nice cup of tea with my tea. And when it's time for bed, there's a lot to be said for a nice cup of tea.
Tea / Dinner
Today tea, as the main meal of the day, can range from jacket potato and salad to curry to pizza to spaghetti bolognese to stir fry to potato waffles (or smiley faces) and fish fingers (i.e. fish sticks). It really depends on the demographics of the individual household. Accompanying drinks at tea time will likely be water (from the tap or, if you're posh, from the tap through a BRITA filter), tea, or wine (for the more middle class), and squash (concentrated fruit flavoured drink you add water to) for children. On Sundays, after the heavy roast dinner, tea is traditionally a light affair consisting of sandwiches and sweet treats like Tunnock's Teacakes or a slice of Victoria sponge cake.
|Bernard Matthews helped introduce the UK to the joys of frozen food - especially Turkey - which could be cooked in the oven and served with some kind of potato.|
If you're celebrating, or just lazy, you might prefer to order a takeaway. The most modern version of this is ringing (or going online) for a delivery pizza from the likes of Domino's, Pizza Hut, or Papa John's. The more traditional option is to ring the Chinese or Indian [restaurant]. Both cuisines have been adapted to British tastes over the years, and now sweet and sour pork and chicken korma are two of Britain's most beloved foods. (Note that takeaway food doesn't usually come in those fancy cartons you see on US TV, it comes in plastic or polystyrene packaging like THIS.) If you're really old school you might actually walk to the local chip shop to buy a fish and chip supper, or one of their other offerings.
If it's a really big occasion, you might actually be going out for dinner. And not even to a pub. Restaurant dining in the UK tends to be reserved for dating couples, birthday celebrations, and wedding anniversaries. Or business deals, if you're that way inclined. Popular restaurant chains include Harvester, Frankie and Benny's, Wagamama, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, and Giraffe. The big differences between US and UK dining are in customer service. You aren't expected to place fussy demands on the restaurant, asking for bits to be left off, added on, or cooked in a specific way unless you have a food allergy which could kill you. You're expected to eat what you're given and be thankful for it. Complaining is only done if the food is terrible. You are also not obliged to tip in the UK, though it is customary to leave a couple of pounds extra with your bill, especially as a large party. Staff are not reliant on tips to top up their salary, so this is a general nicety rather than a necessity. The overly chipper 'Have A Nice Day' attitude among serving staff, though by no means nonexistent, tends to be grating to the average Brit and isn't overly encouraged. Politeness is quietness in the UK.
I have read, too, that in the US you eat your food and vacate the restaurant as quickly as possible once you've finished. In the UK people tend to linger after their meal, drinking, talking, and generally getting their money's worth. Another difference is that, in the UK, 16 and 17 year olds can drink alcohol with a meal so long as they are accompanied by an adult. 18 year olds, of course, can drink whether they're eating or not. Water, unlike alcohol, is not generally suggested or offered to you, you need to request it. And, of course, if you need to use the toilet you can just ask 'where are the toilets?' We call a spade a spade here.
For those who have spent the night out drinking, a trip to the local kebab shop for a donor kebab (i.e. 'gyro') or to the Chinese / Indian takeaway on the way home is almost expected. If the night finishes early enough you might pile into a sit down Indian restaurant for a curry, as suggested at the beginning of this chapter. If you're trying to save money, or are unlucky enough to live in an area without a 24 hour McDonalds, the only option is to come home and drunkenly attempt to prepare a bacon sandwich or baked beans on toast.
The best known slimming clubs are Weight Watchers - which also produces a range of branded low calories snack bars, etc - and Slimming World. They are spoofed rather mercilessly in BBC sitcom Little Britain with Marjory, the leader of her local branch of Fatfighters, recommending her members eat dust because 'It's actually very low in fat. You can have as much dust as you like.'
|The US had Richard Simmons, we had Mr Motivator.|
Going to the gym is something most Britons aspire to, but few actually achieve. Membership to the big chain gyms like Virgin, Fitness First, and LA Fitness is expensive, and likely to end up a wasted investment for most people. Alternatives include public leisure centres run by the local council, smaller private gyms, and team sports like amateur football clubs. Then there's cycling, hiking, walking, jogging, and all manner of other activities that can be carried out in your local area. (The keyword being 'can'.)
You can also try, in addition to the endless fad diets written about in celeb obsessed magazines like Reveal and Closer, diets like Jane Plan which delivers healthy frozen meals to your door. Providing you don't mind living the culinary lifestyle of an OAP (old age pensioner, the usual UK term for senior citizens) reliant on the Meals on Wheels van.
The two biggest chains today (though a few Wimpys cling to life) are McDonalds and Burger King, though both have seen a slump in sales in the face of the modern British obsession with healthy living. To fight back McDonalds, in particular, has revamped its menu to make it more Change4Life friendly. Happy Meal and child targeted adverts emphasise the quality of their ingredients (food laws are much more stringent within the EU, so compared to its US counterpart it really is top quality - also the reason for all those YouTube vids with people astounded that McDonalds doesn't taste the same in whatever country it is they're visiting) and the option of milk, fruit juice and fruit bags - the need to appeal to parents is even more paramount since Happy Meal toys are regularly replaced with books these days. Adult targeted ads tend to focus on the food's value for money.
Because, as a nation, the Brits spend some £30 billion ($50 billion) on fast food and takeaways a year. When faced with the option of buying in or cooking from scratch, it seems cheap, cheery convenience is always the winner. In addition to the US burger / pizza chains, and the takeaways mentioned earlier, other fast food options include small fried chicken outlets, burger vans (i.e. food trucks), and kebab shops.
Sweets and Chocolate
Cadbury's main competitors - though not on a level Cadbury really needs to worry about - in the UK are Milka, Mars Inc (e.g. Mars Bar, Bounty, Milky Way, Twix, Maltesers, and Galaxy), and Nestle chocolate products like Rolo, Smarties, Kit-Kat, Aero, and Toffee Crisp. One time rival Fry's was subsumed into Cadbury, though products like Fry's Turkish Delight still carry their name. The most popular white chocolate is the Nestle Milkybar, advertised by the Milkybar Kid, a character and jingle known to all. Kinder Eggs combine milk and white chocolate, and contain small collectible toys into the bargain. Other popular chocolate products include After Eight Mints, Ferrero Rocher, and other 'upmarket' brands like Lindt and Thorntons.
|The traditional thing to buy from the ice cream man, a bloke who parks his van at the beach, the fair, the car boot sale, or else drives around the local housing estates, is a 99 with a Cadbury Flake. In addition to soft serve, ice cream vans also sell ice lollies, fancy lollies (e.g. Fab, Magnum, Calippo and Twister) and cans of pop.|
Then you have sweets proper. Traditional varieties, the kind you see in glass jars in olde worlde sweet shops, include things like toffee (i.e. taffy), fudge, barley sugar, peppermints, humbugs, pear drops, aniseed twists, jelly beans, and liquorice allsorts. Moving onto the sweets especially beloved of the 1960s and 70s you get things like Black Jacks (aniseed chews), wine gums, love hearts, candy cigarettes (now known as candy sticks), gobstoppers (i.e. jawbreakers), sugar mice, sherbert fountains (sherbert in the UK is a fizzy powder, we don't really have an equivalent for what Americans call sherbert as sorbet is a slightly different thing), dip dabs, marshmallows, and candy lipsticks. For popular sweets of each decade, click HERE.
Also to be found with the sweets and chocolate bars are mints. The best selling brand in the UK is Polo. Other popular brands include Trebor, Tic Tacs, and Fox's Glacier Mints. Chewing gum is the other option, of course, the most popular brand being Wrigleys. Bubblegum options include Hubba Bubba, Bubbaloo, Roll Up (i.e. bubble tape), and Anglo Bubbly. Other sweet treats that spring to mind are popcorn (sold in sealed bags by brands like Butterkist, it's very unusual to make your own at home), sticks of rock (traditionally sold at seaside resorts), and things sold at fairgrounds and other such places, like sugar dummies and candyfloss (i.e. cotton candy).
That done, you need to decide which shop to shop in. If you just need a loaf of bread or a pint of milk, you can nip to the corner shop - typically run today by British Asian families - and its more modern equivalents, convenience store chains like Londis, Nisa, and SPAR. For the weekly shop, you need to think bigger. Traditionally food shopping was done at a mixture of places: the local butchers, bakers, fishmongers and grocers. The first supermarket, an idea imported from the US, opened in the UK in 1951 and today you can find everything under one roof. Here is a list of the main supermarket chains in the UK:
Tesco - Founded in the UK in 1919, today Tesco operates in 12 countries and advertises its ability to provide everything in house, from pay-as-you-go mobile (i.e. cell) phone contracts to car insurance, and its value for money via the slogan 'Every Little Helps'. It was the first supermarket to focus on its own brand range, known as 'Tesco Value'.
Sainsbury's - Founded in 1869 and is perceived as being 'posher' than its closest rivals. Its image is aspiring middle class, and its brand colour is orange. For years they used TV chef Jamie Oliver in their adverts, much to the annoyance of just about everyone.
Asda - Owned by Walmart since 1999, Asda was founded in the UK in 1949 and its advertising is all about beating other supermarkets on price comparison tests. Its budget brand, Asda Smart Price, is heavily promoted, as is its clothing line, George. George is in the top 5 clothing retailers in the UK, so it must be working.
Morrisons - Morrisons was founded in 1899 and today enjoys an 11% market share. In 2004 Morrisons bought out Safeway, a well known supermarket chain that had been around since 1962. Over the last couple of years Morrisons' performance has been poor, and a huge shake up is underway, including over a 1000 job losses. Morrisons use popular Saturday evening entertainers Ant and Dec in their adverts, and highlight their natural produce and friendly staff.
Co-Op - The Co-operative Food, to give it its full title, has all the ethical pluses on its side, being a co-operative, but is seen as expensive compared to its rivals. Still, they don't do too badly, they bought out longstanding supermarket chain Somerfield in 2009.
Waitrose - Founded in 1904 the chain has been called Waitrose since 1982. Its image is middle class, with a focus on organic produce and its online service, Ocado.
ALDI - ALDI [Sud], a German based chain, was originally founded in 1913 and opened its first UK store in 1989. Today it's market share is around 4.8%, thanks to its good quality, low priced products and humorous ad campaign which tells consumers its in-house food and drink is just as good as the branded alternatives.
Lidl - ALDI's biggest rival back home in Germany, Lidl sell more branded products and have almost 600 stores in the UK.
Food Translations (Not Yet Mentioned)
Aluminum Foil = [Tin] Foil. 'Aluminum' is one of the most hated Americanisms in the UK, here it is written (and pronounced) 'Aluminium'.
Arugula = Rocket.
Beet = Beetroot.
Capsicum = Pepper.
Cider = Apple Juice. Cider is what we call 'Hard Cider', i.e. the alcoholic version. Popular cider brands in the UK include Bulmers, Magners, Old Rosie, and more small scale brews of Scrumpy. Gone but not forgotten is White Lightning.
Cilantro = Coriander. As referenced in the Mighty Boosh 'crimp', Tasty Soup.
Cream = in the UK 'Half and Half' would be called 'single cream'. Cream with 48% buttermilk, or US 'Heavy Cream' is called 'Double Cream'. We also have squirty cream, which is like whipped cream, except it comes from a spray can.
Crumpet. A griddle cake served with butter typically served as tea time dessert, or snack with a cup of tea. (The word is also typical 1960s and 1970s slang for an attractive woman.)
Double Boiler = Bain-marie.
Eggplant = Aubergine. It's not particularly popular in the UK, except for in the Goodness Gracious Me 'I can make everything at home for nothing (using only a small aubergine)' sketch.
Flapjack = UK Flapjacks are completely different to their pancake like US namesakes. They are oat bars made from rolled oats, butter, brown sugar, and golden syrup (i.e. pale treacle).
Frosting = Icing.
Ground Meat = Mince(d) Meat.
Haggis. The national dish of Scotland, traditionally served with 'neeps and tatties' (turnips and potatoes).
Jelly Roll = Swiss Roll.
Legumes = Pulses. (i.e. things like beans, peas, and lentils.)
Molasses = [Black] Treacle.
Muffin = American muffin. English muffins are 'small, round, flat types of yeast-leavened bread'.
Pickled Cucumber = Gherkin, as used in McDonalds Big Macs.
Pie = In the UK a pie is usually a savoury dish - the most nightmarish being Stargazy pie - with an exception made for the sweet apple pie. When it comes to sweet pastry based dishes we prefer tarts.
Powdered Sugar / Confectioner's Sugar = Icing Sugar.
Punnet. UK term for a plastic container used to hold small fruits, like strawberries.
Rutabaga = Swede or Turnip. Parts of Scotland call them 'Neeps', and other parts 'Baigies'.
Salad Cream. A creamy salad dressing, also suitable for dunking chips (i.e. fries) into.
Saran Wrap / Plastic Wrap = Cling Film.
Scallion = Spring Onion.
Scotch Egg. Apparently very much a British thing, they are hard boiled eggs wrapped in sausage meat, coated in breadcrumbs, and then baked or deep fried.
Shandy. Beer diluted with fizzy pop or fruit juice, suitable for precocious children and maiden aunts. On the subject of beer, US beer has a bad reputation in the UK for being bland and watery (based on brands like Budweiser and Miller Lite). Preferred beer types in the UK are bitters, stouts, and milds - 'real ales' from smaller breweries are particularly popular on draught. Popular bottled / canned brands include Newcastle Brown, Old Speckled Hen, Boddingtons Bitter, and imported Polish brands like Tyskie.
Shrimp = Prawn. Both words are in use in the UK, but prawn is much more common. The best known prawn dish is, deservedly, the Prawn Cocktail.
Snow Peas / Snap Peas = Mangetout.
Superfine Sugar = Caster Sugar.
Tenderloin = Fillet.
Welsh Cakes. Also known as bakestones, they are small flat cakes made from flour, sultanas (i.e. sultana raisins), raisins and / or currants. They are sprinkled with sugar and served hot or cold.
Welsh Rarebit. Essentially a fancier version of cheese on toast.
Zucchini = a courgette or a marrow, depending on when it's harvested.
For more guides to Britain, click HERE.