Before coming to England, I had low expectations of the cuisine.
The only other time I had been to England was more than ten years ago, for a school field trip, where we ate whatever was easy and cheap.
So for the longest time, I had always assumed that English food was bland and unexciting.
However, after spending two months in London, I was pleasantly surprised to find that English cuisine is quite good, and the wide range of international cuisines available makes it one of the most exciting places to try different dishes.
My mouth is watering just thinking about some of the amazing meals I had there. Here are some of my favorites, in no particular order.
1Pan-Fried Sea Bass at the Bear and Swann Pub & Inn
The traditional English pub is where everyone hangs out, young and old, at any time of day. It’s the family living room where people gather to watch rugby or football (soccer), or the convenient corner spot that coworkers go to after putting in a long day in the office. The pub not only serves as the local watering hole but for some, the pub has become a sought-after destination for a good meal, prompting the rise of the gastropub.
Historically, many public houses were inns and hotels where travelers would stay and the dining room downstairs served food for guests. Their food ambitions began with simple snacks that would encourage people to drink more but eventually began to include traditional English dishes like meat pies, bangers and mash and of course fish and chips. The “pub food” that has translated down to the soggy jalapeno poppers and potato skins that we get in the US are an embarrassment compared to what pub fare really is.
Today, many pubs are now part of a chain, and they have distinguished themselves by taking traditional pub food to a new level, giving rise to the gastropub.
At the Bear and Swann in Chew Magna, they offer a locally-sourced, and seasonal range of dishes from traditional pub food to modern British style cuisine. It was here that I had an amazing pan fried sea bass served with grilled baby vegetables and potatoes with a balsamic glaze.
2Full English Breakfast
The English do not play around with their breakfast. Ordering a “Full English” or a “Fry-Up” guarantees that you will be full all day, loaded up on protein and grease. The Full English Breakfast traditionally consists of:
- Ham or sausage
- Fried egg
- Grilled tomatoes
- Sauteed mushrooms
- Baked beans
- Black pudding (warning: blood sausage)
If the Atkins diet was still popular, this meal would be at the top of the list of recommended dishes.
Sure, it’s never a good sign when you order a full English and the waiter comments, “You must be hungry”, but hey, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.
After wondering what the heck a jacket potato was, I finally ordered one and realized that it was what we in the US refer to as a baked potato. For an American, the baked potato is like the bastard stepchild of the potato dishes, mostly overlooked by the more popular favorites like french fries or mashed potatoes, or even hash browns. The American baked potato, staple of the summer cookout and simply topped with sour cream and chives, pales in comparison to its cool British cousin, the jacket potato. No sir, when you order a jacket potato in the UK, you get a buttery-soft baked potato smothered with your choice of toppings, piled so high that that you don’t even see the potato below.
Maybe the potato serves simply as a “plate” for the toppings, which typically consist of tuna, corn and mayonnaise or baked beans. No matter if you are in it for the potato or for the toppings, the resulting combination is hearty and delicious. My appreciation for the lowly baked potato was renewed by the jacket potato I had in England.
London is a city of over 8 million people, and many of those people are immigrants. That’s why it is a great opportunity to try cuisine from all over the world. At the Camden Lock Market, a large flea market with hundreds of stalls, vintage markets and food vendors, you can find food from the far reaches of the world. It is here that I tried the lángos, a simple Hungarian dish consisting of fried dough topped with sour cream and cheese.
The dough is soft and chewy on the inside, with a light, crispy shell. The sour cream is tangy and tempered by the shredded cheese on top. It is served warm on a paper plate, and is a perfect snack to fuel an afternoon wandering through the hundreds of market stalls.
It seems like you can find variations of this dish in many different cuisines, but the pasty, sometimes called Cornish pasty, is a purely English rendition. It is formed of a round shortcrust pastry dough, which is then filled with toppings like ground beef, onions, and potato and then folded in half to wrap the filling in a semicircle and crimping the curved edge to form a seal before baking.
It is a convenient and portable takeaway dish, which I thoroughly enjoyed as I walked the streets of Bath.
Sure the sound of it doesn’t seem very appealing, especially if you are familiar with Sweeney Todd, but in reality the meat pie is a very satisfying and savory dish to comfort yourself on a cold British night. It is a perfectly-sized personal portion of pie filled with beef, lamb or chicken, vegetables and gravy. It reminded me of when I was a kid, going to my babysitter’s house where she would microwave a chicken pot pie for me while we watched Family Feud from the kitchen counter.
7Indian thali platter
The UK has over 1 million residents of Indian ancestry so it is no surprise that you can get some really great Indian food here. One of the best meals I had was at Mala Restaurant in St. Katherine’s Docks. Located just east of the Tower Bridge and south of The City, this area tends to draw a business crowd with a mix of travelers on business trips and an after-work crowd seeking dining options along the docks of this newly developed commercial area. However don’t be discouraged by the smartly-dressed waiters or the suited-up clientele, the food that they serve is authentic and unpretentious, and not to mention tasty.
We ordered two thali platters, one vegetarian and one with meat and they were both delicious. If you are unfamiliar with thali, it literally means a “platter” with small bowls of assorted dishes, served with naan bread and basmati rice. It is a great way to sample a variety of different dishes, and results in an incredibly filling meal. Needless to say, we were stuffed!
8Scones with clotted cream
Unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to try a traditional Afternoon Tea (because I couldn’t figure out when to eat it – after lunch when I’m already full? Before dinner and ruin my appetite?), however luckily I did get to enjoy a scone with clotted cream, an undoubtedly English institution.
Unlike the hard, dry varieties we have in the US, the British scone is a soft, lightly sweetened delicacy, best served simply with a pat of butter and jam, or some clotted cream (basically a super rich cream that is almost butter). If anyone knows where I can get amazing scones outside of the UK, let me know in the comments section!
9Peruvian Cuisine at Tierra Peru
I have to admit I was a little skeptical at the idea of Peruvian food. Ignorantly, I assumed it would be similar to Mexican food, with perhaps more emphasis on fish, but the similarities between Mexican and Peruvian cuisine begin and end with the language.
At a small restaurant in the Islington neighborhood of northern London, Tierra Peru showcases traditional Peruvian food in an inviting and friendly atmosphere.
Matt opted for the vegetarian version of the aji de gallina which was served with roasted walnuts on top of a bed of rich aromatic rice with creamy, spicy sauce.
I had the carapulcra, which was a stew of sundried potatoes and roasted peanuts with deep fried bits of fatty beef, plus a bit of spice from the Aji Panca, a Peruvian red pepper.
Washed down with some imported Peruvian beer, it was a unique meal that I wouldn’t have expected to find in the streets of England, so far from Peru.
A New World View
After eating my way through London for two months, I came out with a new world view on British cuisine. Dining in London doesn’t have to be only about old-fashioned, traditional English food that you get at your grandparents’ house. By taking new twists on traditional dishes and leveraging the diversity of the citizens, culture and cuisines, dining in London is truly a treat.
What are some of your favorite things to eat in England? Let us know in the comments!