When we think of British cuisine, it is difficult to pin down exactly what this refers to. Do we speak of greasy, battered fish coated in salt and vinegar with a large side of equally greasy chips? Are we referring to the full English breakfast – a plate of starchy grub fit to cure even the worst of hangovers? Or perhaps the modest roast dinner: Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes, a slab of roast chicken or beef, veggies, a mountain of mash and enough gravy to swim in?
Or, much to the disgust of millennials, are we referring to jellied eels, black pudding and kippers? While these may fail to muster up an appetite today, they remain to be considered traditional British delicacies.
Beyond traditional notions of British cuisine, our modern-day national dishes paint a picture of Britain’s diversity. A study by Cauldron Foods found that 60% of the food we eat is not from a traditional British background. Cultural diversity has had an invaluable influence on the food we consume, reasserting Britain’s culinary reputation from one of dreary and drab to flavoursome and varied.
The Influence of Britain’s Colonial History
Britain has always been influenced by the delicacies of other nations. Historian Lizzie Collingham has written extensively on how Britain’s colonial history shaped its modern cuisine. She describes how, in the 1500s, when the Danish pushed British ships out of Icelandic waters, they sailed further west where the seas were teeming with fish. From here, British sailors began replicating air-drying methods from the area’s indigenous tribes, with British salt cod soon becoming a valuable trading commodity.
Rarely is colonisation considered when we think of national delicacies, yet its impact is immeasurable
And behind Britain’s quintessential cup of tea is a dark history. Sweetened tea is frequently cited as fuelling one of the worst blights on human history: the slave trade. With the rise of sugar cane plantations across America and the Caribbean came the mass production of sugar – a result of brutal slave labour. Europe’s taste for sweetened tea is often deemed responsible for helping to ‘underpin the slave trade between Africa and the Americas’.
Rarely is colonisation considered when we think of national delicacies, yet its impact is immeasurable.
Multiculturalism and British Cuisine
In recent decades, immigration has had a significant impact on Britain’s favourite dishes. Chinese, Indian and Italian restaurants and takeaways can be spotted on every high street. They have become a staple, so much so that chicken tikka masala – an all time favourite curry among Brits – is commonly listed as Britain’s number one national dish.
This is bittersweet for many communities who recognise that Britain can often be a hostile place for migrants, yet the nation seemingly has no problem with adopting and appropriating aspects of various cultures when it suits.
On a positive note, however, this does reinforce the beauty of Britain’s multicultural roots. London’s 2011 census revealed that 262,247 people living in London were born in India – higher than any other immigrant population. What’s more, 1 in every 7 Londoners is of South Asian heritage.
Britain can often be a hostile place for migrants, yet the nation seemingly has no problem with adopting and appropriating aspects of various cultures when it suits
The impact of South Asian culture on British life has translated not only through its cuisine and changing urban landscape but also through key movements such as the 1970s labour movement. When Gujarati women went on strike for the right to join a trade union in 1976, this became known as the pivotal moment when ‘trade unions recognised the rights of women and minority workers as equal to those of white working class men’.
The Windrush Generation
The Windrush generation are rarely accredited for their role in both rebuilding post-War Britain and expanding British culture. When it comes to cuisine in particular, those who travelled from the Caribbean to the UK between the 1940s and 1970s brought with them an abundance of recipes unique to West Indian culture, helping to massively increase the popularity of Caribbean food across the nation.
In response to being ostracised and isolated from British society upon their arrival, Windrush migrants formed their own communities and social spaces where they felt free to recreate aspects of their Caribbean roots. Food stood as a uniting force between displaced Windrush migrants – a way of interacting with and bringing together the community. Through large social gatherings and street parties among Windrush migrants – celebrating both Caribbean food and music – the UK’s Caribbean carnival culture was born.
Many of the Caribbean restaurants and street food enterprises we see in Britain today stem from this time. In recent years, their popularity has continued to grow. A 2019 article in the Observer explored the rise of Caribbean food in the UK, noting that a young generation of British chefs who are of Caribbean and West African descent have once more revived the British food scene.
Immigration has revolutionised British food, changing eating habits irrevocably
Restaurants such as the well-loved chain Rum Kitchen, ItalFresh in Liverpool, Caribbean Croft in Bristol and Maureen’s in Leeds offer the very best of authentic Caribbean cuisine, serving firm favourites such as jerk chicken and Jamaican curried goat along with vegan dishes such as fried plantain, pumpkin and yam stew, and marinated aubergine.
Britain’s Transformed Food Scene
Immigration has revolutionised British food, changing eating habits irrevocably. From home cooking to dining out, Britain is now often considered a hub of culinary innovation. We largely owe this to immigration and multiculturalism.