Traditionally, British cuisine had a reputation as being take-away food or the unfashionable meat and two veg . This is partly the legacy of rationing in Britain during World War II which continued until 1954.
In fact, there are several distinct types of cookery in the United Kingdom. While some people may eat only one type of cuisine, many switch between them during the course of the week.
The Industrial Revolution that began in Britain in the 18th century is responsible for the former poor reputation of British food. Unlike the populations of most other countries, by the mid 19th century the majority of the British population were working in city factories and living in very poor housing. The new working classes had lost contact with the land and the standard of cooking declined as a result.
In the home, food was indeed frequently reduced to "meat and two veg", perhaps with stews and soups. The rationing of most foods during (and for some years after) World War II did little to assist the situation, though it did raise the average nutritional standards of the population to levels never previously achieved - from which they have since declined. However post-war population movements, foreign holidays and immigration to the UK led to the increasing absorption of influences from former colonies (e.g. India) and from Europe (particularly France and Italy). The books of Elizabeth David introduced many new recipes and ingredients from the Mediterranean. Italian American influence is now ubiquitous and pasta or pizza make a significant contribution to many diets. Berni Inns introduced the British public to prawn cocktail and steak, chips and peas, and Wimpy Bars did the same for the Hamburger.
These trends are exemplified by the ubiquitous spaghetti bolognese (known colloquially as Spag Bol) which has been a common family meal in Britain since at least the 1960s. More recently there has been a huge growth in the popularity of dishes like chicken tikka masala and lemon chicken, dishes with Indian and Chinese origins respectively, though modified to suit British tastes. Indeed, chicken tikka masala was first prepared in London rather than in India. The British curry, essentially a hangover from the days of Empire (and subsequently embellished by immigration), is far hotter and spicier than the traditional North Indian variety, though Indians from the southern provinces find it insipid. The post-war introduction of refrigeration, in parallel with the rise of the supermarket has led to the packaging of such foods into oven-ready meals which, often cooked by microwave oven, have now replaced "meat and two veg" in many homes. Consequently, British students attending university and living away from home for the first time can often be seen with a copy of a basic cookery book for beginners (usually a Delia) which includes such 'recipes' as 'boiled egg'.
The rise of the industrial revolution was also paralleled by the advent of take-away foods such as fish and chips, mushy peas, and steak and kidney pie with mashed potato (pie and mash). These were the staples of the UK take-away business for many years, though here too ethnic influences, particularly Indian and Chinese, have led to the introduction of ethnic take-away foods. From the 1980s onwards, a new variant on curry, the balti, began to become popular in the area around Birmingham, gradually spreading to other parts of the country. Kebab houses and American-style fried chicken hovels aiming at late night snacking have also become popular in urban areas.
The increasing popularity of celebrity chefs on television has fuelled an renewed awareness of good food and "New British" cuisine has shaken off much of the stodgy "fish and chips" image. The best London restaurants rival those anywhere in the world, in both quality and price, and this influence is starting to be felt in the rest of the country.
There has been a massive boom in restaurant numbers driven by a renewed interest in quality food, possibly due to the availability of cheap foreign travel. Organic produce is increasingly popular, especially following a spate of farming crises, including BSE.
There has also been a quiet revolution in both quality and quantity of places to dine out in Britain, in particular, the humble Public House has been transformed in the last twenty or so years. Many have made the transition from eateries of poor reputation to rivals of the best restaurants - very often they now are the best restaurants in smaller towns. The term "Pub Grub", once derogatory, can now be a sign of excellent value and quality dining. Some credit for this sea change has to go to CAMRA, for helping to improve the quality of pubs and their products in general, and some to the privatisation of breweries, which forced many pubs to diversify into dining in order to survive as a business, as well as a greater appreciation and demand among consumers.
Despite the fast-food reputation, traditional British cuisine has survived, largely in the countryside and amongst the upper classes.
The Sunday roast is perhaps the biggest culinary indication of a steadfastly traditional household. The Sunday dinner traditionally includes a Yorkshire pudding (almost always as part of the main meal, but sometimes before), followed by a joint of meat and assorted vegetables. The commonest joints are beef, lamb or pork; chicken is also popular. Since its wide-spread availability after World War II the most popular Christmas roast is turkey. Game meats such as venison are traditionally the domain of the higher classes. Game, while being a classic English preserve, is not generally eaten in the average household.
At home, the British have many original home-made desserts such as rhubarb crumble, bread and butter pudding, spotted dick and trifle. The traditional accompaniment is custard, known as crème anglaise (English sauce) to the French. The dishes are simple and traditional, with recipes passed on from generation to generation. The pudding tradition reaches its height with the Christmas pudding.
At teatime, traditional British fare includes scones with butter, jam and clotted cream, as well as assorted biscuits and sandwiches. A unique sandwich filling is Marmite, a dark brown savoury spread made from yeast extract, with a tar-like texture and a strong, salty taste. A hand-made favourite is butterfly cake. Some schools teach young children how to bake such sweets during cookery lessons.
Tea is consumed throughout the day and is sometimes drunk with meals, especially at teatime. Coffee is much less common than in continental Europe. However, coffee is rising in popularity (and quality), while tea, though still an essential part of British life is less ubiquitous than it was. In more formal contexts wine is generally served.
The full English breakfast (or "cooked breakfast") also remains a culinary classic. Somerset Maugham is quoted as saying "To eat well in England, you should have breakfast three times a day." Fortunately it need no longer be true.
In the Victorian era, during the British Raj, Britain first started borrowing Indian dishes, creating Anglo-Indian cuisine, some of which is still eaten today.
Britons have developed alcoholic drinks like gin and whisky.
For centuries, the British market was the main customer of sweet wines like sherry, Port wine, and Madeira wine. English wine has been avaliable since the time of the Romans, but is generally thought of as being of low quality although in recent years, reflecting perhaps the improving palate of the British people, the quality of native wines has increased.
British beers tends to be bitter, with lager generally only being made for the lower end of the market. Any establishment catering for the middle of the market will tend to have a range of continetal lagers avaliable, notably Stella Artois which seems to be ubiquitous feature of the British pub scene. British bitter is generally thought of as being of high quality.
Since the end of World War II when their numbers were around 100,000, increasing numbers of the British population have adopted vegetarianism, especially since the BSE crisis of the 1990s. As of 2003 it was estimated that there were between 3 and 4 million vegetarians in the UK, one of the highest percentages in the western world. Around 7 million people claim to eat no red meat. It is now rare to find no vegetarian foods in a supermarket or on a restaurant menu.
British food writers and celebrity chefs
Examples of British cuisine
For fuller lists, see the British section of the list of recipes and Category:British cuisine. For traditional foods protected under European law, see British Protected designation of origin.
breakfast, elevenses, brunch, lunch, dinner, supper, dessert, Tea
See Rationing (during World War II and for several years afterward)
- Hartley, Dorothy - Food in England, Macdonald, 1954; Little, Brown, 1996, ISBN 0-316-85205-8. This is a charmingly old-fashioned survey of the history of English food from prehistory to 1954, full of folk wisdom and recipes (not all practical).