Britain’s most popular comfort foods will keep you cozy.
British cuisine has never reached the starry highs of, say, French fine dining, instead remaining resolutely moored on its tiny isle(s). Yet, despite failing to gain popularity around the globe, British food reigns supreme as one of the ultimate comfort food cuisines. Maybe it ’s the potatoes in all shapes and forms, stuffing meat inside pastry shells, or indulging in custard-doused desserts, but Britain is the place to be when the weather’s bad and all you want is a warm hug in the form of a meal.
A ball of pink pork housed in a crispy pastry shell may not sound all that appetizing, especially when you nonchalantly throw in the fact that those two key components are separated by a thin jelly membrane, but pork pies are a stalwart of British comfort food. Typically the size of a balled fist, the Melton Mowbray variety of pork pies grab all the headlines, but Yorkshire growlers (slang for ‘pork pie’) are also excellent. Eat cold, served with chutney, or briefly blast in the microwave to soften the jelly and add a dollop of mushy peas or brown sauce.
It’s not a “food,” it’s the staple comfort to be consumed in times of crisis and…well, pretty much any other time too. Tea purists will argue to the death that loose-leaf is the only way to go for a proper brew, whereas those with actual lives and jobs swear by teabags. And if you put your milk in first, you’re doing it wrong. (Probably.)
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Scotch eggs were once a simple picnic snack, consisting of a whole boiled egg served in a bread-crumbed sausage meat casing, but now you’ll find them served on beds of lettuce in restaurants across the country. And there’s nothing like salad to take all of the comfort out of comfort food. Rather than go upmarket, pick up this pocket-sized comfort food from your local deli and keep your fingers crossed that there’s a slightly runny egg yolk waiting for you in the center.
A good British roast dinner is a thing of simple beauty…doused in gravy. For the most traditional of Sunday roasts, you’ll need a joint of beef, although pork or chicken is also acceptable, which should then be accompanied by potatoes (mashed, boiled, roasted, or a combination of the above), as well as vegetables of choice (brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, and parsnips are all highly recommended). Don’t forget to add a healthy heap of stuffing and a perfectly golden Yorkshire pudding—and wonder why you don’t eat this for dinner every day.
Practically every British household has a toasty maker of some sort, which just goes to show the national love of the humble toasted sandwich. While a grilled cheese is, confusingly, made in a frying pan, it’s across-the-pond cousin, the British toasty, must be buttered on the outside and stuffed with sharp, meltable cheddar before being carefully placed on the pre-heated, molded surface of the toasty maker. If your cheese doesn’t burst through its bread banks and lay sizzling on the surrounding metal, you’re not using enough.
British-Indian (or Bangladeshi, or Pakistani) curries now account for a vast swathe of Britain’s culinary landscape, and as a result have become one of the nation’s choice comfort foods. Typically served with pilau rice and a naan bread of choice, or perhaps accompanied by onion bhajis and veggie samosas, the most popular British curry is easily the mild tikka masala. However, that’s not to say you can’t branch out into the rich tomato sauce of a bhuna or give spice a go with a vindaloo.
Welsh cakes, sometimes known as bakestones, are tiny discs of buttery deliciousness, not unlike scones. However, unlike their beefier big brother, they’re petite, bite-sized, and practically melt in your mouth, which makes them both highly snackable and deceptively problematic—sit down with a packet in front of the TV and you’ll have soon gobbled them all. Choose between either the plain or juicy currant dotted variety and top either with a swipe of butter or a dollop of jam.
For the Full English experience, you need to come hungry and hungover, as this greasy dish is neither a ‘light bite’ nor particularly healthy. Comprised of sausages, bacon, mushrooms, eggs (fried or scrambled), as well as grilled tomatoes (preferably fresh from the tin) and, of course, the all-important Heinz brand baked beans, a Full English is not for the faint-hearted. However, if that list of ingredients still looks lacking, you can always throw a slice of black (blood) pudding, some buttery toast, and a hunk of fried bread into the mix.
Bacon as good as the British variety is hard to come by anywhere else in the world. The US seems to exclusively dole out the streaky version, whereas the Canadian slabs are more akin to a fat ham steak. For really great bacon, you need to be in Britain. Stuff the fried slices between two pieces of bread (no bagels, no pitas) and douse in your sauce of choice—red or brown. If you want to go all out, throw a few sausages or a fried egg into the mix for an indulgent breakfast that will leave you stuffed ‘til dinnertime.
Leek and Potato Soup
Picture the scene: it’s a rainy British day and all you want is a vaguely healthy, but resolutely creamy soup. Look no further than the humble leek and potato variation. Some prefer their leek and potato soups chunky, with roughly chopped potato and discernible wisps of leeky layers, while others prefer to blend it into a creamy broth. Whichever way you take this meat-free winter warmer, make sure to add a healthy glug of milk (or cream) or top with a handful of crispy bacon and croutons.
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A mixture of potatoes, cabbage, and onions may sound highly unappealing, but bake it and top it with cheese and you’re left with the delicious Scottish classic rumbledethumps. Usually served as a side dish accompaniment to a main meal, such as the aforementioned Full English or Roast Dinner, Scottish rumbledethumps is a close cousin of both Irish colcannon (mashed potato laced with kale or cabbage) and the just as amusingly named English bubble and squeak (which uses leftover roast dinner vegetables to make a shallow fried potato and veg patty).
The enduring notion that “Heinz Meanz Beanz” shows no sign of dissipating in modern day Britain, as this tinned, tomato-sauced staple continues to be devoured daily across the country. While Heinz beans options are endless, you can’t go wrong eating the beans hot with buttery toast and a handful of grated cheddar, or even over pasta for a cheap, filling lunch. Those in the know will always reach for the Sausage and Beans version though.
Welsh rarebit (sometimes known, confusingly, as Welsh rabbit) is perhaps the most impressive sounding yet simple of all British comfort foods, bringing together two staples in perfect harmony: bread and cheese. For fancier versions, add mustard, paprika, or Worcestershire sauce to your melted cheese before dolloping atop the toasted bread.
Much like many British sweets, notably Cadbury’s Chocolate Fingers, it’s nigh on impossible to eat just one Jaffa Cake. What makes these spongy discs topped with orange jelly and a thin layer of easily cracked chocolate just so addictively delicious is quite the mystery, but never, ever sit down with a whole packet as 10 minutes later you’ll only be surrounded by shame and empty wrappers.
Fish and Chips
Perhaps the most internationally recognized staple of British cuisine is the coastal favorite, fish and chips. However, while you’ll likely find some version of battered fish and fries offered up on menus around the globe, the best fish and chips are to the found at the seaside, preferably wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper. If you’re not a fan of a dry potato, order a side of quintessentially British curry sauce or offensively neon green mushy peas. Alternatively, ditch the fish, just order chips, and douse the whole lot in salt and vinegar.
Bread and Butter Pudding
Stale, buttered bread, layered in a pan, topped with currants, and baked with an egg-custard sauce sounds far from appetizing, but this penny-pinching British favorite, invented as a way to use up close-to-expiration ingredients, is the ideal stodgy winter dessert. Nowadays, many variations of the original recipe exist, from the use of old hot cross buns or croissants instead of bread, to the addition of marmalades and jams instead of butter. Basically, there’s a bread and butter pudding recipe to suit everyone.
Not, as the name suggests, some kind of cannibalistic pie made from innocent shepherds, Shepherd’s Pie is made from a simple mixture of minced lamb and vegetables (usually carrots, peas, and onions) topped with creamy mashed potato, which is then baked in the oven for maximum crispiness. Don’t confuse this with the beef-filled Cottage Pie or creamy seafood and prawn Fish Pie versions.
Toad in the Hole
Don’t be put off by the bafflingly named dish (I promise neither frogs nor toads come into play), because Toad in the Hole is actually a super simple teatime favourite across Britain. As with most British food, this square- or rectangular-shaped, sausage-lined Yorkshire pudding is far from fancy, but it does do the impossible, enhancing the all-round general excellence of a well-made Yorkshire pudding.
While the US has a thing for all things (sweet) pie, Brits are all about their crumbles. Usually involving some kind of stewed, seasonal fruit—think rhubarb, apple, or blackberries—fruit crumbles are teatime staples during both winter and summer months. Crumbles are usually served with a dollop of ice cream for a refreshing pudding or thick, creamy custard for a winter warmer dessert.
Back at it again with meat and veg stuffed into a pastry shell, the classic Cornish pasty is a British treat with a protected status akin to that of French champagne and Mexican tequila—i.e. if it’s not from Cornwall, it’s not a Cornish pasty. Rumour has it that the iconic crimped pastry border wasn’t meant to be eaten by the coal-covered Cornish miners who’d gobble them down for lunch. Rather, it served as the convenient crust “handle” they could grab onto as they wolfed down the rather more appealing beef, potato, onion, and rutabaga filling. Nowadays, however, the whole pasty is fair game.