The ultimate traditional English food guide
London is a foodie adventure full of restaurants and street markets where you can get authentic food from around the world. There is no shortage of Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, and even Southern BBQ. And of course there is excellent French, Italian, Scandinavia, Greek, Spanish, and more as immigrants from fellow European countries have opened restaurants all around town. Gone are the days when fish and chips and meat pies were central to the local diet in London.
Now that international cuisines are so popular and easy to come by, it’s important to seek out good, old English classics when you visit London to experience the roots of the local culture. For eating your way through this vibrant city or jaunting around the countryside, here are traditional English meals and dishes that are worth a try. Warning: Nobody said this list would be low-calorie.
Rise and shine
A full English breakfast is a hearty meal. Most often it includes a fried egg or two, smoked bacon, and sausage. But that’s just the start. What else is on the plate depends on the region. In London, you find baked beans, black pudding (aka blood sausage infused with oatmeal), a grilled tomato half, hash browns, and sautéed mushrooms. As for condiments, ketchup or brown sauce (a sweet, peppery, tangy steak sauce) are most popular. Moral of this story: If you order a full English, be sure you have a big appetite.
A real pleasure for many Brits is to spend leisurely weekend afternoons in the local pub socializing with friends and family over food and drink. The pub, short for public house, is like an extension of the living room. Kids are even welcome, usually up until 8:00 p.m. As an indulgent and satisfying meal, a staple at most gastropubs is the Sunday roast. It is a hearty meal—a feast, if you will—that reminds me of Thanksgiving dinner.
Roast meat is of course central to the meal. This may be roast chicken (skin-on, bone-in, and often whole), lamb, beef, or pork. To accompany this glorious meat are crispy chunks of potato, carrots, and other steamed veggies such as broccoli, green beans, or Brussels sprouts. And a Sunday roast would not be complete without an airy and crispy Yorkshire pudding—a baked good similar to a popover. Pour gravy over the top and use mustard, mint jelly (for the lamb), or brown sauce for dipping.
As you may have guessed, Sunday roasts are usually served on Sundays, but many gastropubs will offer them on Saturdays and on holidays. This may be your one main meal of the day around brunch time or thereafter.
Snacking at the pub
Not every pub outing means a hearty meal. Often locals grab a few pints with friends and may order something to snack on. And one of the top bar snacks in these parts are scratchings—deep-fried strips of fatty pigskin. If you eat pork, don’t put your nose up until you try them. They are devilishly good.
Some pubs will offer them in small, snack-sized bags. These tend to be well salted, hard, and crunchy. Other pubs make their own and they come out still sizzling from the deep fryer. Imagine how those would taste being washed down with a gulp of beer.
Viewfinder Tip: Pubs are not just for drinking. Gastropubs in London and around the country can be the best places to experience traditional English food.
A local curiosity
Scotch eggs are quite a sight to see. You’ll find these around town sold in street markets and restaurants, supermarkets, and even department stores. They are a hybrid dish—a medium boiled egg, wrapped in sausage meat, breaded, and deep-fried. These days you can get vegetarian and non-pork options.
Scotch eggs are claimed by the famed department store, Fortnum & Mason. They say these beauties were created as a snack to sell to patrons leaving town to eat on the road. It makes sense, they are protein-packed, easy to tuck into a basket and eat with one’s hands.
For contemporary travelers, they are fun for picnics (a must-do on sunny days) and convenient as a meal on the go. Personally, I prefer them warm rather than room temperature, so that means ordering them in restaurant rather than picking them up at a street market.
Time for something sweet
A very common British dessert is pudding. But it is not what Americans refer to as pudding—that creamy, smooth stuff. Pudding in the UK is made with soggy chunks of bread soaked in custard and sugary goodness, sometimes baked with fresh or dried fruits and spices. Pudding can also refer to a moist and spongy cake. And it is often served hot, producing a satisfying, stick-to-your-ribs food experience.
Sticky toffee pudding is a well-known example. It is a gooey molasses cake often sitting in a pool of warm, liquid toffee and accompanied by ice cream and/or whipped cream. As another example, bread and butter pudding is a mix of buttered bread, custard, raisin, vanilla, and nutmeg. But these are just two of many varieties.
It is hard to find a dessert menu in England without pudding on it. So while you are in the country, have at it.
What are your favorite English food classics?