Unlike its European neighbours, mealtimes are less of a drawn-out, social affair in the UK: the average British day will consist of a basic breakfast, a quick lunch (probably eaten at your desk), and dinner at home. Despite this, the United Kingdom does have several national dishes and mealtime traditions.
While the average weekday breakfast will most likely be processed white toast or cereal, the nation is also home to the famous “English Breakfast”. Typically consisting of toast, eggs, bacon, baked beans, hash browns, sausages, tomatoes and mushrooms, it’s probably not the healthiest start to the day, and is usually reserved for the weekend.
Business breakfasts are fast replacing lunch meetings as they are considered to be more efficient and also more practical, giving you the whole day to consider what has been discussed. Breakfast is typically eaten between 07:00 and 09:00 and lunch is eaten around 12:30. Unlike many countries, lunch tends to serve the purpose of filling your stomach rather than being a social occasion like the evening when many British people will head to their local pub for a beer.
Another specialty is the English “High Tea”, also known as “Cream Tea”, which is a light meal originating from Devon and Cornwall, both renowned for their cream. It is usually eaten at around 16:00 and traditionally consists of scones, cream, strawberry jam, sometimes sandwiches, and, of course, a pot of tea with milk. One particularly famous (but also expensive) spot to take your afternoon tea is at Mayfair’s famous hotel Claridge’s.
Dinner, also known in some parts of the country as tea or supper, is the most important meal of the day in British culture. This is the meal at which the family comes together to eat, normally around 19:00, much earlier than in most European countries. Friday evening is worth mentioning as it is the traditional day to eat the British specialty of Fish & Chips for dinner.
Sundays have a traditional menu too. British families enjoy a “Roast Dinner”, which — despite its name — is eaten at lunchtime. This usually consists of chicken, roast potatoes and other popular British vegetables, such as carrots and cabbage, with a generous helping of gravy.
The word pub is short for “public house” and is a central part of British social culture. The pub provides a place to relax after the working day and watch football with friends in the evening. Pubs are primarily drinking establishments, but most serve simple British cuisine, too, otherwise known as “pub grub”. Particularly loved dishes are steak and kidney pie, pork scratchings, English Breakfast, Ploughman’s Lunch, or simply sandwiches and crisps.
In general, tipping is not expected, but if the person behind the bar is particularly nice or fills several big orders, you can invite them to “have one [a drink] for yourself” and add it to the bill. Many pubs are also inns, and will offer comfortable — if not particularly high-standard — guest rooms, usually at a relatively low price.
Aside from “pub grub”, Britain is also home to many renowned gastropubs, which are usually also hotels. Such pubs can often be found in pretty areas of the countryside, particularly in the Cotswolds. These popular and fashionable gastropubs came about in the late 1960s and are scattered across the UK offering high-quality English cooking, usually at a significantly higher price than in your average pub. Classic dishes often consist of a British meat such as pork, with side dishes of truffle oil or sweet potato fries, homemade sauces or onion jam, and will most likely be locally sourced.
The number of gastropubs is increasing. Famous chefs such as Heston Blumenthal, who owns the Michelin Star gastropub The Hinds Head, and Raymond Blanc, who owns the Brasserie Blanc chain, are among those to catch on to the trend. At these places, tipping — about 10% of the bill — is expected, and some restaurants add a service charge of up to 15%.
Surprisingly, the much-loved British classic of Fish & Chips is no longer the UK’s national dish. Curry has been adopted as the nation’s favorite food, with over 9000 curry houses in the UK today. Traditional Indian dishes have now taken on very British twists, such as Chicken Tikka Masala which was supposedly created in Glasgow to satisfy the British taste buds, as the sauce is supposed to resemble gravy!
Curry became popular following the Second World War, largely due to the influx of Bangladeshi immigrants who now own 65% of the curry houses in the UK. Cities that have held the title “Curry Capital of Britain” include Leicester, Glasgow, Birmingham, and Bradford. Cardiff, the capital city of Wales, is also renowned for its impressive curry houses.
The international food scene in Britain is growing rapidly, particularly in London, perhaps due to its increasingly multicultural society. Restaurants from virtually every country can be found in London, and most UK cities are home to countless restaurants with food from across the globe. Particularly popular cuisines include Asian, Middle Eastern and North African food, and Western European restaurants serving Italian food or Spanish tapas can also be found on most UK high streets.
The majority of restaurants in the UK also offer vegan and vegetarian options, and most cities should have at least one entirely vegan or vegetarian restaurant. One particularly recommendable vegan restaurant is El Piano in the northern city of York, and London is full of vegan and vegetarian restaurants, many of which can be found on the TimeOut website.
The British are unfortunately known for their love of processed white bread; however, many towns actually have their own local bakeries. Baking forms a significant part of British culture, as indicated by the country’s BAFTA-award winning television series The Great British Bake Off, an amateur baking competition. Around 15.05 million viewers watched the final episode aired on BBC in 2015 and the show sparked great enthusiasm towards baking. Many British supermarkets reported sharp rises in sales of baking ingredients, such as online retailer Ocado, who saw a rise of 200% in their bakeware category following the 2015 show, and retailer John Lewis even saw a 300% rise in food mixer sales.
Few things are more quintessentially English than “High Tea”. Teatime in England offers an array of sweet baking recipes, most popular being either the sweet bread known as a “scone”, served as mentioned with cream and jam, or the simple “Victoria Sponge”, named after Queen Victoria. The much-loved cake actually consists of two sponge cakes, separated by a layer of strawberry conserve and buttercream.
The British people are known for having a sweet tooth and there are endless dessert recipes to discover. “Bread and Butter pudding” is a frugal British recipe dating back to the eleventh Century, and was invented to use up stale bread. Nevertheless, the recipe is delicious and moved from being a humble dish to a much-loved comfort food. “Apple crumble” is another popular British recipe with a history behind it, originating during food rationing in the Second World War. The crumble consists of baked apples, a base made of flour and butter, and usually a large amount of sugar. The famous English “trifle” contains of berries, custard, jelly, sponge cake, whipped cream, biscuits and some chocolate on top. Similarly, the dessert “Eton Mess”, which originated from the famous English institution Eton College, contains double cream, meringue and berries.
This guide is proof that the UK has endless choices of food for expats to eat and explore, which stretch far beyond the stereotypical cuisine of cottage pie and Fish and Chips. Happy eating!
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