Whenever you go to a new country, one of the cultural delights is supposed to be the exposure to new and unique culinary traditions. I personally make it a rule to try everything once. But it's difficult, isn't it? When facing a new food, your first gut reaction, due to your own comfort zone of familiar foods, is likely to be... what the heck IS this? And what the heck is IN it? More often than not, it's truly best that I don't know ahead of time.
If you're a picky eater, like me, when coming to Great Britain you may personally want to know what you're getting yourself into. After all, while things have dramatically improved in Britain over the last decade, the British aren't exactly known for their culinary genius.
Despite the bad reputation, Great Britain does have some very tasty and unique foods. This guide should help you work through the different foods you may come across on your travels here, and educate you to some of the history behind British food as well. We'll cover starters (soups and stews) and main meals in this part of the guide, saving the desserts for Part II, because you know darn well you're not allowed your pud (dessert) until you finish your supper!
Beginning the Culinary Tour
Cawl - This is a country way of saying that what's in it is whatever was handy at the time. It can be a soup or a stew, and is made of meat and vegetables thrown together in a large cauldron. Traditionally what went in it depended on what meat was handy (bacon and mutton, commonly), and whatever vegetables were in season. These days it is usually made of potatoes, leeks, onions and lamb.
Cock-a-Leekie - A Scottish speciality, which you may have guessed by the name. This is a soup / stew that contains beef, chicken, leeks, and...best not tell the kids about the prunes.
Mulligatawny Soup - This is a South Indian dish...waitaminute! Okay, I see your confusion. Just remember that India was once part of the British empire. This soup, whose name means "pepper water" in Tamil, has been extensively adapted by the British. Mulligatawny Soup contains chicken, meat or vegetable stock mixed with yoghurt, cheese, or coconut milk. It will be heavily seasoned with curry and other spices. You'll find a good deal of variance in the recipes...and don't be surprised if it shows up with a side of rice!
Scotch Broth - The base of this thick soup is a very rich stock traditionally made by boiling mutton, beef, marrow-bone, or chicken. Vegetables in Scotch Broth typically include leeks, cabbage, turnips, celery, carrots and peas, which are diced and added with some barley.
Surely They Don't Eat Frogs
Now that we've finish our soup course, we can safely move on to our main meal and side dishes. Forks at the ready, then.
Toad-in-the-hole - Before your kids go screaming out of the pub, it's nice to be able to reassure them that toad-in-the-hole is really nothing more than a bit of batter and cooked link sausages. Brits prefer to leave the frog eating to the French. The batter and sausages are baked in a dish until the batter puffs up golden brown around said bangers (that's a Brit word for sausages). Thus giving said dish the appearance of a little head peeking out of a hole. This dish is fairly universal and is served for both lunch and dinner.
Yorkshire Pudding - First things first... it's pronounced YORK-shuhr or YORK-sheer. Say YORK-shy-ur and you're guaranteed to stick out as an American. The next thing you should know is that it is nothing like a pudding. A Yorkshire pudding is more like a souffle, made of milk, flour, and eggs, and baked in beef dripping (that's fat, to you and me) until it is puffy and golden brown. It should also be on the crisp side. Served warm and nearly always accompanies British roast beef. Yorkshire, incidentally, is a beautiful northern county in England.
Irish Stew - Irish stew itself will vary from chef to chef, yet nearly always has a common base of lamb, onions and potatoes.
Welsh Faggots - It's probably not a good idea to tell you that faggots used to be made up of the odd parts of a pig after it's been slaughtered (ancient hot dog, perhaps?). However, today faggots are meatballs which are made from a pig liver, onion, beef suet, breadcrumbs, and sometimes, chopped apple.
Colcannon - This dish is found mainly in the Western Isles of Scotland, but will also be found in parts of Ireland. A vegetarian's delight of boiled cabbage, turnip, potatoes, and carrots, the mixture is stewed for about 20 minutes in a pan with a bit of butter, then seasoned and served hot.
Bubble and Squeak - Developed as a way to use leftover cooked cabbage and potatoes, the original dish contained beef. More often than not, it is served without meat in modern times. The name is allegedly derived from the vegetables bubbling as they are boiled and the squeak they create in the frying pan.
Welsh Rarebit (Rabbit) - To me, this is a fancy name for toasted cheese, but to be fair, it is a bit more than that. Grated cheese is melted with either ale or milk, then mixed with butter, mustard, pepper and salt. The cheese mixture is then spread on to toast, and left to bake until the cheese goes golden brown. This is served open-faced.
Glamorgan Sausages - Glamorgan is a lovely rural area just west of Cardiff in Wales. This is a meatless sausage made from grated cheese, breadcrumbs, herbs and chopped onions or leeks. There are a number of variations on this recipe, and some can be quite spicy.
Haggis - ah, haggis. I believe it was the great Mike Myers who once said something along the lines of Scottish cuisine being based on a dare. If he ever needed proof, I suppose haggis is it. To make haggis, you start with boiling the liver, heart, lungs and other parts of a sheep. Then, this is minced and mixed with beef suet and oatmeal. To present this delicacy in an appealing way, the mixture is then placed inside the sheep's stomach, sewn closed, and boiled yet again. My true exception to the "try everything once" rule.
Crempog - Crempog are the Welsh version of buttermilk pancakes. These are usually served with fish or meat fillings, or simply served warm with butter on them. Traditionally, this was another of those foods that varied with regards to whatever the cook had lying about.
Black Pudding - Hmmm. I'm not really sure I should tell you what this is made of, but, here goes. Black pudding is essentially pig's blood. Not only is it blood, but blood that is left to congeal in intestine. It usually has bits of fat added to it, and is served in the shape of a patty sliced from a large sausage as it is so expensive. I have tried this and, er, well, I guess it's an acquired taste. Everyone else seems to like it though!
Jellied Eels - No hidden message here. Essentially eels are cooked, and then left to sit around in their own jelly. These are considered a delicacy, and no self-respecting pub in the East End of London can apparently do business without them.
Kipper - A kipper is just smoked herring. These are usually served with breakfast.
Mushy Peas - I never laughed so hard when an American told me how much he enjoyed his fish and chip dinner somewhere, but what the heck was that bright green stuff on the side? Mushy peas was the answer. The British love their mushy peas, which are apparently reconstituted dried peas that simply go to mush! They're much better than they look, honest. I don't think your kids are gonna go for that, though.
Pickle - It's not what you might think. Gherkins are what you find on those McDonald's hamburgers. Pickle is more similar to what Americans call relish. Made from veggies, vinegar, and spices, it's of a spreadable consistency and typically put on sandwiches with cheese or cold cuts of meat. I don't particularly care for it, but visitors often rave about it. A word of caution - some pickle can be very hot. The British quite like their onions pickled as well.
Roll It Up and Take It With You
Main meal pies are a true British food. Need to take a meal with you? Bake it in some pastry and you've got a handy meal to go!
Meat Pies - Since Victorian times, pies have been a low-cost sustenance food, originally a London tradition. Fish pies, which were stuffed with eels, were the original popular pie, but when fish became scarce during WWII, minced meat became the popular standard filling. Another popular variation of the meat pie is a Steak and Kidney Pie.
Likky Pie - This pie consists of leeks, pork, and cream baked in pastry.
Pork Pies - The little town of Melton Mowbray, in the heart of England, put itself on the map by being the very home of the pork pie. Apparently even the Queen herself has visited Melton to check out the pork pies. Essentially, a minced pork filling is baked in a crusty pastry. In Melton Mowbray, secret ingredients are included, which I suppose keeps them from falling off of the map. But you can try a pork pie anywhere.
Shepherds Pie - Not really a pie in the wrap it up and carry it with you sense, but well worth trying. Lamb or more commonly beef, mince is mixed with some vegetables and topped with mashed potato and cheese, and baked or grilled until the potatoes go golden. It's really very tasty!
Stargazy Pie - This is a true fish pie, as it is made with whole, fresh sardines. The heads of the fish are placed to poke out of the crust, letting them look upwards, thus the name.
Cornish Pasty - You'll find the ever-famous Cornish pasties available in just about every bakery and fish and chip shop. A Cornish Pasty's main ingredients are beef and potatoes, and they are extremely popular in Great Britain. These were said to be invented for miners to easily carry their lunches to work with them in Cornwall, which is a beautiful south-western area of England. If you want to try one, make sure you try one there.
That wasn't so hard, was it? Now you can order with confidence and bravery next time you hit the British Isles. In Part II, we'll cover the good stuff... pastries and puddings, so loosen your belt a notch, and stay tuned.