British Cuisine: In Defense of the Indefensible?

roast-beef.jpgBritish food is terrible. Bland food, over-cooked vegetables – if you’re there, stick to the Indian restaurants, right? Well, not exactly. British food (usually referred to as “English food”) has a terrible reputation, especially in America, but this reputation is just not deserved. As a Briton living in America, I’ve become tired of this misconception. So, even though I realize that I’m perhaps unlikely to convince many people on this side of the Atlantic, I thought I’d share a few thoughts in the spirit of the last part of this blog’s motto of “Law, the Universe and Everything.”

1. Familiarity breeds contempt. I think a lot of the problems that Americans have with British food is that it is similar enough that it’s not exotic, yet not similar enough to be comforting. The basic techniques and ingredients between British and American cuisines are almost identical, so that Americans in Britain order things they think are familiar and are disappointed that things are not as they expected them at home. Yet while things are different, they are not so different as to have the novelty of, say, having sushi for the first time. The peculiar thing is that Irish food doesn’t have the same terrible reputation as food from the UK, even though the two are even more similar than US and UK food.

2. Restaurant food isn’t always representative of a cuisine. Britain has long had some really bad restaurants, especially in the tourist areas of London. But unlike America, where dining out has been in integral part of the culture for many for a long time, Britain’s restaurants have not occupied a similar cultural position. The real power of British cuisine has lain not in its chefs, but in its homes – in everyday food, particularly the institution of the Sunday roast. (Of course, there are thousands of bad restaurants in America that serve poor processed food as well).

3. Chef culture and the new British food scene. The restaurant scene in Britain has changed in recent years. Industrially processed convenience foods may have weakened the home cooking culture, but at the same time a fantastic variety of restaurants have emerged in the capital and elsewhere, taking traditional recipes in new and exciting directions. Britain is obsessed with its celebrity chefs – people like Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, and Delia Smith. And the culinary renaissance is such that London is now a foodie city that can stand on a par with New York or even Paris.

4. Supermarkets. But the real advantage of British cuisine (at least compared to American) is in its supermarkets. Go into a British supermarket today, and you’ll find that the quality of the produce – especially the fish and fresh vegatables – is on average far superior to its American counterpart. Often, you’ll find the produce labeled not only with the country of origin (increasingly Britain, where possible), but also the county. You can still find strawberries that taste like potatoes, but not as often as you can in America, where many children grow up thinking that strawberries should be white and crunchy inside.

5. Glass houses. A final point about American disdain for British food is one of caution. British cuisine is not perfect, but it is (and has been) far better than Americans give it credit for. But before Americans cast the first stone (or rotten tomato, or black pudding), think about the American crimes against food. McDonald’s (especially if you’ve read Fast Food Nation or seen Super-Size Me), Agri-Business and industrialized food production generally, rubbery cheese, spongy bread, corn syrup-based beverages, and gigantic portions of often mediocre food.

For what it’s worth, I think the Wikipedia entries on English and Scottish Cuisine are quite fair, and take a balanced view on an issue that rarely receives reflection. Comments, as always, are open for discussion (and in this case, possible lazy cheap shots).

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17 Responses

  1. Bill says:

    Traditional English food is unhealthy, yet seems to provide comparatively little enjoyment for the damage that you are doing to your arteries. I think that is its chief fault.

    By contrast, dishes like Memphis-style BBQ ribs, Cajun jambalaya, cheddar cheese grits, Chicago-style deep dish pizza and the Philly cheesesteak provide a lot of utility for the long-term cost that they extract.

    I’m not sure what you are doing by defining fast food as “American food.” McDonalds’ may be American, but Burger King was for years part of UK-based Diageo.

  2. Bill McGeveran says:

    Neil: I’m with you! I’ve traveled in Britain a fair amount and I agree that the food is much better than its bad rap suggests — and you are especially right about dining out in London and the better grocery stores. Even quick food can be better on the whole, such as the prepared meals at Marks & Spencer and elsewhere that you pick up on the way home from work and cook there.

    I’d also add that there is now excellent and diverse ethnic food in London and other major English cities — not just Indian any more, but also a wide variety of Asian, Latin, and European cuisines.

    But I’m afraid bad food, like bad teeth and priggishness, is an inaccurate stereotype that may never go away. Then again, some of your lot think we’re all fat and stupid, so you probably come out better in the bargain.

  3. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    “But before Americans cast the first stone (or rotten tomato, or black pudding), think about the American crimes against food. McDonald’s (especially if you’ve read Fast Food Nation or seen Super-Size Me), Agri-Business and industrialized food production generally, rubbery cheese, spongy bread, corn syrup-based beverages, and gigantic portions of often mediocre food.”

    You’re absolutely right about that. I must say, however, that it’s not too hard to be a vegetarian–or a vegan, or a Freegan–in this country (I’m not sure what it’s like in England or the UK for that matter), but to maintain a good vegetarian diet on a working-class budget takes a bit of work and luck: access to farmers’ markets, cheap organic food, ability to read fine print, and, in my case, a spouse who can cook (I can scramble eggs and put together a mean crunchy peanut butter and honey sandwich, but that’s about it; indeed, I frequently burn toast) and appreciates alternative cuisines. We’ve been vegetarians for over thirty years (and our adult children have decided to keep the diet they were brought up on), and although I have my fair share of pizza (with olives, mushrooms, or onions…) and sweet things (I have an inordinate fondness for pumpkin pie and oatmeal cookies, as well as the occasional almond joy bar), I really can’t fathom the American love of agro-industrialized junk and fast food. The difference between produce at the chain supermarkets and the locally grown and organically-farmed stuff is rather stark and appalling.

    Is British cuisine ample enough to make room for a vegetarian diet? An affirmative answer will mean for this reader that you’ve successfully acquitted the indefensible.

  4. Lazy Cheap Shot: baked beans!

    As an American living in Scotland, I have to say: Scottish food generally stinks. Sure, there are some things to admire. I even like a well-prepared haggis. But with some of the greatest ingredients in the world fresh salmon, black angus beef, lamb, mussels, fresh fish, whisky; why ruin it with “chips” and bad cream sauces.

    Some British cuisine is excellent. But going to a grocery store every week, I’m shocked what some of these folks eat. As to eating out at restaurants, it is truly shocking the terrible food locals pay for at outrageous prices. Granted I’m working off a weak dollar, but $25 for fish and chips? And don’t even get me started with breakfast.

  5. Deven says:

    I take it you reject the idea that chicken tikka masala is a national dish of the U.K. as Foreign Secretary Cook said. Although some say it originated in Glasgow, given its relationship to chicken makhni or butter chicken, it seems that the dish is still more Indian than British.

    As for quality of produce, where are you shopping in the U.S. and are you saying all U.K. markets carry non-manipulated produce at a low cost? If so on the later part, that is impressive.

  6. Gaia says:


    You might be interested in this series of photos featuring the food in homes around the world, including a British home.



  7. Bruce Boyden says:

    Neil, are you saying that if I was Japanese British food would taste better? Put me in the skeptical column.

    I do agree that Britain suffers from a lack of good restaurants, or at least it did 17 years ago. It just doesn’t seem to be as big a part of the culture. Along with peanut butter, chips and salsa, pizza, and other food items any self-respecting American would consider staples. Great beer though.

  8. Having recently visited London, I can attest to the fact that the food is remarkably improved — it’s quite terrific even though you’ll have to mortgage your house to pay for dinner. However, the best restaurants in my opinion were generally Asian cuisine — Chinese, Thai, and Indian. As far as the native cuisine, I wonder whether even the very best chefs can do much with bangers and mash and fish and chips. I actually enjoy the British pub food, but only in small doses. And it tastes much better after downing a few pints. . .

  9. Deven – I consider Chicken Tikka Masala to be a national treasure (and I enjoyed it and other fantastic Indian food in remote Wales this summer). I should also make clear that I don’t hate American food – in particular I love barbecue (I’m partial to Alabama style, though Memphis is also good) and Cajun cuisine.

  10. Frank says:

    I don’t know if Keble College at Oxford is still serving boiled vegetables, baked potatoes, and gristle for dinner, but your commentary gives me some hope for those now attending what I invariably found to be miserable meals. As someone with minimal disposable income during my two years in England, I subsisted largely on kebab van fare, 10-pence cans of baked beans from Sainsbury’s, and sandwiches from Pret-a-manger.

    I think it’s hard to say anything about a country’s cuisine in general–the rich will always feast and the poor have to make do. Tyler Cowen has a quirky observation here; he says the best food is served in countries with massive inequality, since it requires a large low-paid work-force to prepare it and a niche of those wealthy enough to command their services to enjoy it.

    So on second thought, maybe we should be happy for the countries that have bland food….here’s to Scandinavia!

  11. anon says:

    I’d have to say I disagree with you Neil!

    I was in London this summer, and the only comprable meal I had in Britain (comprable to DC standards) cost me well over $100.

    Most of the Britons I met told me their food (not their traditional food of course, but their “imported” variety) was the best in the world. I definitely disagree with this. Having a few good (and incredibly expensive) restaurants does not make up for the rampantly mediocre chains (i.e. pizza express, eat, pret, go sushi, etc.) that have taken over London. And nothing makes up for pub food. 😛

    But I must agree with you on the strawberries. They were consistently brilliant!

  12. I think Pret stacks up very nicely against Subway, but I suppose that’s beside the point. The really interesting issue here that your post reveals is how we assess a cuisine. Do we look to fancy restaurants (where it’s mostly men doing the cooking), ordinary homes (where it’s mostly women, and where most of the eating takes place), chain restaurants, independent restaurants? And where do we look – in the principal cities (DC, NY, London) or in smaller places (Liverpool, Aberdeen, Des Moines, Phoenix)? And then there is social class – do we look to what the rich eat, the poor eat, or those in the middle? I think it’s a hard call, but my argument is that the basic claim you here a lot over here that “English food is terrible” is a lazy one that usually just refers to the dining experiences Americans have in the tourist areas of London, whether it’s now or some time in the past. And it overlooks the fact that the average quality of food that ordinary Americans eat is very poor indeed, as the pictures that Gaia referenced show (though the one British family pictured wasn’t much better, I’ll admit).

  13. mjll says:

    IN Elton Johns album, LONG ONES, he sings about 1000 peices of candy for a pound.

  14. When my daughter’s humanities class came back from their trip, something that surprised the parents was how many of the kids, all of them, reported that the British food they ate was better than the French food they were served.

    I have not been to England in a long time, but I am looking forward to the changes I’ve been told about when my wife and I get there.

  15. James says:

    Having been to England for over 50 trips in the last 20 years, I have to say that the food has much improved. I also agree the foods in their supermarkets is of a good quality, but supermarkets in the US are good also and if you find fault it must be more of where you shop here.

    The problem with British food is what they do with the fresh ingredients they now have. Give the exact same ingredients to a Frenchman, an Italian and a Briton and the results will not be good for the Briton – unless, of course, they make an Italian or French dish.

    My biggest disappointment with British food was, of all things, the beef. US beef is top notch (what with our vast cattle ranches, steers and cowboys etc.) Where I live in NYC you can buy and eat the best and I have also had beef from France, Argentina and Australia – all excellent. I have had beef in many European cities – but each time I decide to give British beef in Britain another chance, I am continually disappointed.

    Also let’s forget fast food in both countries. I don’t eat it here in New York and I don’t eat it in London. It isn’t very good in either place. Pret is better than Subway true, but doesn’t hold a candle to the typical NY deli or sandwich shop which have been around for decades. Pret is a relatively new creation not something that grew up and came out of the culture – it is an invention.

    Growing up in NYC gave me a healthy disdain for typical “American” food. In my area, rich with so much ethnic food, we used to refer to as “mayonnaise and ketchup” food. We have the world in miniature here in NY and we have been cosmopolitan for centuries (unlike London where it is a relatively recent phenomenon.) One has always been able to get authentic”ethnic” food – both prepared and fresh – from all over the world and as such, most native-born New Yorkers are near experts.

    You can get good food in England and you can get bad food in France or Italy, but the exception proves the rule. One can find many French, Chinese and Italian restaurants outside of their respective countries, but the chances of finding an English restaurant outside of the UK are very small and that is telling.

    In closing, I have to say that the full English breakfast is about the worst thing ever served to man and hardly healthy.

  16. Ben B says:

    British food went through some fairly mediocre stages post WW2 but I think we have food to be proud of and I don’t really see a massive difference between the quality of the produce or the dishes in most of the major cities I’ve been to. In France Lille and Paris I’ve paid ridiculous sums of money for a croque monsieur and moules mariniere that were a parody of French food and I’ve been to Sorrento and had one of the worst pizzas I’ve ever eaten along with one of the best. When I was in Mexico City I was there a week before I ate anything that vaguely resembled a decent Mexican meal. When I did it was because we met some Mexicans who guided us away from the horrible processed cheese laden slop that they churn out at over inflated price to the tourists. In America I had some truly amazing barbecue food but on the flip side they had nothing like the amazing variety of British and European cheeses we get over here or if there was it was ludicrously expensive! My point is there’s good food and bad food everywhere. A black pudding can be equally as good as a boudin noire or a morcilla. A stuffed chine can be as good as a salami or a slice of serrano ham and battered fish is just as nice as tempura in a different way, don;t get me started on how good haggis is. All are cuisines are massively influenced by each other if you read historic cook books the french and english have been exchanging ideas for centuries and asian cuisine is a mish mash of centuries worth of a whole continent of food. Basically stop point scoring and get eating!!!

  17. Ben B says:

    P.S James. English breakfasts if cooked right are among the most awesome things on this earth and highlight the fact it’s all about the quality of the ingredients and how they’re cooked.