British cuisine is the heritage of cooking traditions and practices associated with the United Kingdom. Although Britain has a rich indigenous culinary tradition, its colonial history has profoundly enriched its native cooking traditions. British cuisine absorbed the cultural influences of its post-colonial territories – in particular those of South Asia.
In ancient times Celtic agriculture and animal breeding produced a wide variety of foodstuffs for the indigenous Celts and Britons. Anglo-Saxon England developed meat and savoury herb stewing techniques before the practice became common in Europe. The Norman conquest introduced exotic spices into England in the Middle Ages. The British Empire facilitated a knowledge of Indian cuisine with its "strong, penetrating spices and herbs". Food rationing policies put into place by the British government during the wartime periods of the 20th century are widely considered today to be responsible for British cuisine's poor international reputation.
Well-known traditional British dishes include full breakfast, fish and chips, the Christmas dinner, the Sunday roast, steak and kidney pie, shepherd's pie, and bangers and mash. People in Britain, however, eat a wide variety of foods based on the cuisines of Europe, India, and other parts of the world. British cuisine has many regional varieties within the broader categories of English, Scottish and Welsh cuisine and Northern Irish cuisine. Each has developed its own regional or local dishes, many of which are geographically indicated foods such as Cornish pasties, the Yorkshire pudding, Cumberland Sausage, Arbroath Smokie, and Welsh cakes.
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Romano-British agriculture, highly fertile soils and advanced animal breeding produced a wide variety of very high quality foods for indigenous Romano-British people. Anglo-Saxon England developed meat and savoury herb stewing techniques and the Norman conquest reintroduced exotic spices and continental influences back into Great Britain in the Middle Ages as maritime Britain became a major player in the transcontinental spice trade for many centuries after. Following the Protestant Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries "plain and robust" food remained the mainstay of the British diet, reflecting tastes which are still shared with neighbouring north European countries and traditional North American Cuisine. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as the Colonial British Empire began to be influenced by India's elaborate food tradition of "strong, penetrating spices and herbs". The United Kingdom developed a worldwide reputation for the quality of British beef and pedigree bulls were exported to form the bloodline of major modern beef herds in the New World. Developments in plant breeding produced a multiplicity of fruit and vegetable varieties, with British disease-resistant rootstocks still used globally for fruits such as apples.
During the World Wars of the 20th century difficulties of food supply were countered by official measures, which included rationing. The problem was worse in WWII, and the Ministry of Food was established to address the problems (see Rationing in the United Kingdom). Due to the economic problems following the war, rationing continued for some years, and in some aspects was more strict than during wartime. Rationing was not fully lifted until almost a decade after war ended in Europe, so that a whole generation was raised without access to many previously common ingredients. These policies, put in place by the British government during wartime periods of the 20th century, are often blamed for the decline of British cuisine in the 20th century.
The last half of the 20th century saw an increase in the availability of a greater range of good quality fresh products and greater willingness by many sections of the British population to vary their diets and select dishes from other cultures such as those of Italy and India.
Efforts have been made to re-introduce pre-20th-century recipes. Ingredients not native to the islands, particularly herbs and spices, are frequently added to traditional dishes (echoing the highly spiced nature of much British food in the medieval era).
Much of Modern British cooking also draws heavily on influences from Mediterranean, and more recently, Middle Eastern, South Asian, East Asian and Southeast Asian cuisines. The traditional influence of northern and central European cuisines is significant but fading.
The mid-20th-century British style of cooking emerged as a response to the depressing food rationing that persisted for several years after the Second World War, along with restrictions on foreign currency exchange, making travel difficult. A hunger for exotic cooking was satisfied by writers such as Elizabeth David, who from 1950 produced evocative books, starting with A Book of Mediterranean Food, whose ingredients were then often impossible to find in Britain. By the 1960s foreign holidays, and foreign-style restaurants in Britain, further widened the popularity of foreign cuisine. Recent[when?] modern British cuisine has been influenced and popularised by TV chefs, all also writing books, such as Fanny Cradock, Clement Freud, Robert Carrier, Keith Floyd, Gary Rhodes, Delia Smith, Gordon Ramsay, Ainsley Harriott, Nigella Lawson, Simon Hopkinson, Nigel Slater and Jamie Oliver, alongside The Food Programme, made by BBC Radio 4.
Since appearing in Christmas dinner tables in England in the late 16th century, the turkey has become more popular, with Christmas pudding served for dessert. The 16th-century English navigator William Strickland is credited with introducing the turkey into England, and 16th-century farmer Thomas Tusser noted that in 1573 turkeys were eaten at Christmas dinner. Roast turkey is often accompanied with roast beef or ham, and is served with stuffing, gravy, roast potatoes, mashed potatoes and vegetables. In addition to Christmas pudding, trifle, mince pies, Christmas cake or a yule log are also popular desserts.
Some Anglo-Indian dishes derive from traditional British cuisine, such as roast beef, modified by the addition of Indian-style spices, such as cloves and red chillies. Fish and meat are often cooked in curry form with Indian vegetables. Anglo-Indian food often involves use of coconut, yogurt, and almonds. Roasts and curries, rice dishes, and breads all have a distinctive flavour.
Signs of curry's popularity in Britain slowly became evident by the later 1960s and 1970s, when some establishments that originally catered almost exclusively to Indians gradually observed a diversifying clientele.
English cuisine encompasses the cooking styles, traditions and recipes associated with England. It has distinctive attributes of its own, but also shares much with wider British cuisine, partly through the importation of ingredients and ideas from North America, China, and India during the time of the British Empire and as a result of post-war immigration.
Some traditional meals, such as bread and cheese, roasted and stewed meats, meat and game pies, boiled vegetables and broths, and freshwater and saltwater fish have ancient origins. The 14th-century English cookbook, the Forme of Cury, contains recipes for these, and dates from the royal court of Richard II.
Northern Irish cuisine
Scottish cuisine is the specific set of cooking traditions and practices associated with Scotland. It shares much with English cuisine, but has distinctive attributes and recipes of its own. Traditional Scottish dishes such as haggis and shortbread exist alongside international foodstuffs brought about by migration. Scotland is known for the high quality of its beef, lamb, potatoes, oats, and sea foods. In addition to foodstuffs, Scotland produces a variety of whiskies.
Welsh cuisine has influenced, and been influenced by, other British cuisine. Although both beef and dairy cattle are raised widely, especially in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, Wales is best known for its sheep, and thus lamb is the meat traditionally associated with Welsh cooking.
Dates of introduction to Britain
Prehistory (before 43 AD)
Roman era (43 to 410)
Post-Roman period to the discovery of the New World (410 to 1492)
1492 to 1914
- Cuisine of the Thirteen Colonies
- Culture of the United Kingdom
- List of British breads
- List of British desserts
- List of United Kingdom food and drink products with protected status
- List of English dishes
- Northern Irish cuisine
- Rationing in the United Kingdom
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- Food Stories – Explore a century of revolutionary change in UK food culture on the British Library's Food Stories website
- George Orwell's essay "In Defence of English Cooking"