British food has often been the butt of jokes, but the reach — and popularity — of our island's food is more global than you might think.
Britain has always been a culinary melting pot. From the fish and chips brought by Jewish immigrants to the East End of London to the tikka masala that is now widely held to be the country’s favourite meal, our island’s cuisine has been shaped and vastly enriched by centuries of newcomers.
The Romans brought cabbages, peas and, of course, wine, the Vikings arrived with fish-smoking techniques and the Normans bequeathed us a dictionary’s worth of food names (anyone for mouton?). Kedgeree, now thought of as the most quintessentially British of breakfasts, came home with members of the East India Company in the 18th century. But of course, that isn’t always the direction of travel.
As a former Empire with colonies all over the globe, Britain has exported its favourite foods worldwide. Think of the 4th Earl of Sandwich’s proprietary late-night snack, now consumed, ‘in some form in almost every country in the world,’ according to food historian Andrew F. Smith.
For all that people like to scoff at indigestible Anglo stodge (W. Somerset Maugham, who spent much of his life in France, supposedly quipped that ‘to eat well in England, you should have breakfast three times a day’), it’s been embraced and reinter-preted in thousands of entirely different — and entirely delicious — ways. Even haggis exports have risen by 136% over the past 10 years; Hong Kong and Ghana are especially keen.
Tracing dishes back to their point of origin is a knotty, and some might say impossible, business, but here are four from around the world with roots — or, at the very least, strong associations — in the UK.
Few dishes are so bound up with this nation’s psyche as beef. Whether it’s served roasted on a Sunday with all the traditional trimmings, enjoyed cold in a sandwich with plenty of horseradish or rolled into a thrifty retro special such as beef olives, it’s synonymous with Britain.
It’s even had songs written about it: Henry Fielding’s The Roast Beef of Old England, a rollicking patriotic ballad praising the dish that ‘ennobled our veins and enriched our blood’, proved so popular that Hogarth borrowed its title for one of his paintings.
The French refer to the English with a dismissive Gallic shrug as les rosbifs and even have it on their menus phrased just so. The story goes that Florentine bistecca or ‘beef-steak’, a mouthwatering T-bone to share, got its name during the 16th-century Medici era, when a group of English knights crashed a wedding party in the Piazza San Lorenzo and cried ‘beef steak!’ when they saw a whole ox being roasted to mark the occasion.
The clue is in the name: crème anglaise translates as ‘English cream’, so, of course, this silky smooth sauce of sugar, egg yolks and hot milk (or cream) was invented on these shores. Or was it?
Some historians think it’s actually a nod to the ubiquity of custard in England and, linguistically, things are even more muddled. Custard comes from the French word croustade, which originally referred to the crust of a tart; baked custards in pastry were popular in the Middle Ages. That word in turn is derived from the Italian crostata, itself a derivative of the Latin crustare.
Confused yet? No matter, this is an export we should be proud to claim regardless.
From 1841 to 1997, Hong Kong was under British control. It makes perfect sense that many of the traditions that have stuck there relate to food and drink, from the popularity of English-style pubs to afternoon tea (although with Cantonese and other Chinese cuisines being far more deeply rooted in the region’s dining culture, that’s more likely to take the form of milk tea and a crunchy-topped pineapple bun than a cup of Earl Grey and a scone).
The British are said to have popularised custard tarts during their rule — in fact, the dish’s name, daan tat, is made up of the Cantonese word for ‘egg’ and the English ‘tart’.
One version of the story claims that the British brought their recipe to Canton, now Guangzhou, in the 1920s, where local dim-sum chefs adapted it before its fame spread from the mainland.
The hugely popular Hong Kong version comes in individual portions rather than slices (a nod, perhaps, to the Portuguese pastel de nata) and is richer and smoother than the British equivalent.
In Japan, yoshoku, or Western-influenced, cuisine is a genre all of its own, marrying ingredients and techniques. Alongside spaghetti with cod’s roe and breaded cutlets, you might find nikujaga — a supremely comforting, British-esque meal of thin slices of beef or pork, potatoes and onions simmered in
a savoury broth flavoured with mirin and soy, the name of which literally translates as ‘meat and potatoes’.
The legend goes that, in the late 19th century, Admiral Togo Heihachiro, one of Japan’s great naval heroes and the man referred to in Britain as ‘the Nelson of the East’, asked his ship’s cooks to replicate the Royal Navy’s famous beef stew, creating the dish.
There’s some dispute over whether this tale was actually woven much more recently as a marketing stunt — but what’s certain is that Togo studied in England as a naval cadet in the 1870s and so would surely have encountered hearty stews. The fact that he kept diaries in English throughout his life also suggests a fondness for the country that could well have carried over into the kitchen.
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