The English East India Company opened its account in India, after being granted rights by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, to open a factory in Surat. Their steady expansion thereon to Madras, Bombay and Calcutta, set the stage for a more aggressive phase of annexations and alliances that would lead it to command vast territories on behalf of the British Crown, to whom the lands were turned over. For the time they spent in the country, they put in place infrastructure to access resources, and added new terms and habits to the Indian repertoire. This includes the indispensable tiffin and more importantly tea drinking – which quickly became an abiding habit.
The growth of the British Empire did much to animate the coloniser's own cuisine. Like India, Britain too has benefitted from the foods of the New World. There's the potato that came in from South America but also methods of cheese making that were brought in from the Arab world.
Kedgeree, a version of the Indian dish khichdi was first brought back by officers of the East India Company in the 18th Century. Scotch eggs (possibly inspired by the Nargisi kofta) consist of a hard-boiled egg, wrapped in sausage meat and dipped in breadcrumbs. Mulligatawny (pepper water) and Worcestershire sauce are products of the interaction between India and Great Britain during the days of the Raj. The curry would be the most iconic of British dishes to evolve from British interactions with India. While the word 'curry' is said to have been coined by English administrators of the East Indian Company, from the Tamil word 'kari', a 14th Century English cookbook, The Forme of Cury, suggests it may have been inspired by the French verb 'cuire', meaning 'to cook'. The exchange with India has also been two way. The British take credit for introducing the culture of tea drinking to India, after it had become entrenched on British soil. The social habit of drinking tea received a fillip when Queen Catherine, wife of Charles II brought tea over to Britain as part of her dowry. The East India Company began to import tea in 1678 and by 1750, it is fair to say that tea had displaced beer as the national beverage. The invention of the sandwich was a useful development to go with the burgeoning habit of the afternoon tea. The sandwich, named after the Earl of Sandwich, was given form when the aristocrat asked for something that he could consume without having to interrupt his game of cribbage. A slice of beef was placed between two slices of bread, and the first sandwich was born. Yet while the repertoire of British foods today is as multicultural as it can get, there are some foods that remain indubitably British: Shepherd's pie, bubble and squeak, cheese and onion pie, and Cornish pasty are just a few.
Traditional British dishes
In 2001, the serving British Foreign Secretary stated that “chicken tikka masala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is the perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts to external influences.”
- Yorkshire Pudding: Made from flour, eggs and milk, baked in the oven
- Ploughman’s Lunch: An English pub meal rallying cheese, chutney and bread; boiled eggs, ham and pickled onions are optional additions
- Shepherd’s Pie: Minced lamb and vegetables
- Lancashire Hotpot: A casserole of meat and vegetables
- Cumberland Sausage: Seasoned pork sausage, coiled up
- Beef Wellington: Whole beef tenderloin covered in pastry
- Fish and Chips: Crispy fish and chips, served with lemon
Chicken tikka masala sits easily with long-time classics of the British Isles – this includes the evergreen pub/ streetside staple of batter fried fish served with chips; bangers and mash, essentially sausages and mashed potatoes; and the modest Ploughman’s Lunch – ham and cheese sandwich, with the essential pickle, and an apple for good measure.
Pickles, chutneys, relishes and preserves
The 1st Century Roman scholar and officer Pliny the Elder mentions a fish sauce called garum – a staple of Greco Roman cuisine. The Romans brought this to Britain during their occupations. In India, the British were introduced to a new set of pickles. Piccalilli is an example of a British interpretation of an Indian approach to pickle making. The British have ultimately valorised their own favourite foods through a selection of techniques. Malt vinegar or distilled vinegar and salt/brine are the main agents for preservation of foods in a savoury format, while sugar is the preserving agent in the range of jams, jellies, chutneys and sweet relishes. Peppercorn, clove, coriander seeds, mustard, mace, allspice and chilli are some of the spices preferred in the British approach to pickling.
- Branston Pickle: Sweet-sour pickle made from diced vegetables
- Piccalilli: Indian pickles made with chopped vegetables and spices
- Pickled Onions: Onions pickled in a solution of vinegar and salt
- Gherkin: Cucumber pickled in vinegar and brine
- Worcestershire Sauce: A liquid condiment made from malt vinegar
- English Mustard: A thick condiment made from mustard seeds
Soups and Vegetables
A soup can hold its own as a meal. Scotland, birthplace of the hearty broth, can boast of more than a few popular soups. Cullen skink and cock-a-leekie are perfect for lifting spirits on a cold night. The leek, which is used extensively in Welsh cuisine, is one of the emblems of the region; regional soups also showcase trusted vegetables and herbs including parsnip, peas, celery, artichoke and watercress.
- Boxty: Traditional Irish pancake made from potatoes
- Champ: Irish dish made from potatoes, scallions, butter and milk
- Colcannon: Made from potato mash, kale/cabbage and cream
- Cullen Skink: Thick soup marked by the unique flavours of smoked haddock
- Cock-a-leekie: Soup of leeks and stock, thickened with barley
- Clapshot: A Scottish dish made from potatoes and turnip; usually served with haggis
- Bara Lawr: Classic Welsh dish made from seaweed
- Glamorgan Sausage: Welsh (ovo-lacto) vegetarian sausage made of cheese, eggs and breadcrumbs
Fish, Meat and Poultry
Back in the 18th Century, visitors to the islands took note of the “large amounts of meat” consumed by Englishmen. The meat included game, mutton, pork and beef that were often spit roasted. The last three continue to rule British preferences; with most of it purchased as manufactured products. There is a sustained tradition of understanding and making use of offal in preparations.
The two broad categories of fish are white fish such as sole and cod, and oily fish that include sardines, mackerel and herring. They are purchased fresh, frozen, smoked/dried, or canned. In the poultry stakes, chicken rules the roost.
- Kipper: A revived English breakfast food that consists of a whole, smoked herring
- Arbroath Smokie: Type of small, hot-smoked haddock from a town on the east coast of Scotland
- Finnan Haddie: A Scottish origin, cold-smoked haddock smoked over green wood or peat
- Roast Grouse: Grouse, a heavy bird like the chicken roasted over a spit-fire
- English Sausages: Colloquially called Bangers, they are made of fresh meats
- Crubeens: Traditional hand-eaten Irish food made from boiled pig’s trotters
- Irish Stew: An emblematic Irish stew prepared from lamb or mutton
The Great British cheesemaking tradition entered a new stage with the entry of the Romans who introduced rennet. Today Great Britain boasts of over 700 unique cheeses and its own pedigreed set of nine territorials – each named after a territory or region – that include Cheshire, Caerphilly, Cheddar, Lancashire, Double Gloucester, and Stilton. Arguably, the most esteemed of these is the Stilton – a blue cheese that has been referred to as the King of the Blues. It is not uncommon for some of these cheeses to see the occasional involvement of herbs, honey and even beer. There are commonly consumed on their own or with bread/toast – an example of one format is Welsh rarebit. Cheese is also enlisted in soups, salads, sandwiches and cakes.
- Cheddar: Distinctive tasting natural cheese that dates back to the 12th Century
- Stilton: The King of English cheeses comes in blue and creamy white
- Cashel Blue: Blue cheese made from the milk of Irish farmhouse cows
- Cooleeney: Soft, slightly chalky farmhouse cheese produced both from cow’s and goat’s milk
- Gubbeen: Smoky, semi-soft farmhouse cheese made from cow’s milk
- Dunlop Cheese: A mild, sweet Scottish cow’s milk cheese; pairs well with whiskey
- Caerphilly: A hard white Welsh cheese made from cow’s milk; flavour similar to Cheddar
Britain’s reputation as a behemoth among beer brewing countries, is unchallenged. Along with wine and mead, ale is known to have been made and consumed at the time of the Anglo Saxons. The island is equally famous for traditional concoctions made from base drinks; examples include hot toddies, eggnog, punch and mulled wine.
- Juicy Aromatic Whites (Bacchus)
- Whiskey (Glenmorangie)
- Rum (Old Vatted Demerara)
- Vodka (Graffiti)
- Gin (Hendricks)
- Whiskey-Based Liquers (Drambuie)
- Light and Refreshing (Oakham JHB)
- Appetizers (Worthington White Shield)
- Dark and Creamy (Guinness)
- Rich and Warming (Fuller’s)
- Speciality (Heather Ale Fraoch)
Hot /Cold Beverages
The tea leaves may have come from China and India, but the ceremonial high tea in its popular form, is a quintessential British ritual. The origin of this tradition is however, arguable. According to some, Catherine of Braganza brought over the custom to the royal court after her marriage to Charles II of England. Others place the credit for high tea at the door of Duchess Anna Maria Russell of Bedford. It is said, the Duchess carved out the afternoon teatime as a way of filling up the tedious meal-less gap between breakfast and dinner. She began to invite friends over to participate, and soon the trend caught on. Before long, it was taken up by other high society ladies and became an established tradition in middle and upper class British homes.
- Tea: Brew made from the dried leaves and buds of the evergreen Camellia sinensis
- Cidona: Apple based drink from Ireland
- Lemonade: Lemon flavoured drink sweetened with sugar
- Irn-Bru: Bright orange carbonated drink, advertised as Scotland’s other national drink
- Sugarelly: Soft drink flavoured with liquorice
Pies, Pastries and Desserts
Puddings, pies and pastries are the cornerstone of British comfort food. Puddings started out as an exclusively savoury creation, and were prepared in a format similar to sausage; it is said to have developed from the prototype that was introduced by the Romans during their occupation of the island in the 1st Century BCE. There’s a healthy tradition of cream based desserts and tea time snacks – with clotted cream finding its way into both sweet and savoury editions, as well as cream tea.
- Banoffee Pie: Dessert pie made from bananas, cream, biscuits and condensed milk
- Cherries Jubilee: Dessert dish made from flambéed cherries and liqueur; created in honour of Queen Victoria
- Custard Tart: A pastry filled with egg custard
- Scones: Lightly sweetened quick bread/cakes that serve as a classic tea time eat
- Trifle: Layered dessert consisting of whipped cream, sponge cake, custard and fruit
Strangely, the harmless pudding was banned by 17th Century England’s Puritans who considered it too indulgent. Fittingly, the King who did away with the ban, earned the name Pudding King. Like pies, puddings developed through finding ways of putting meat scraps to good use. Over time, puddings have come to include sweet dishes. Suet (animal fat) is an important ingredient in traditional British pudding formulations – both sweet and savoury. Classics suet puddings include spotted dick, jam roly poly, Yorkshire pudding. Sauce, chilled cream or custard, are served as traditional accompaniments.