Why Does British Food Suck?
By Andrew Broadley
Brown, Beige, Boiled, Bland, Boring, Basic, British.
British food has been at the heart of culinary scrutiny for decades over its lack of flavour and flair. Debate’s editorial assistant, Andrew Broadley, answers the age old question: why does British food suck?
When Britain fell in love with a fermented fish sauce popular across Asia, they recreated it, and in doing so came up with tomato sauce. A dish that despite being a sugary tomato-based abomination (fight me) remains popular across the Western world and in no way resembles fermented fish. Something about that feels very British. As a nation they colonised half the world and ruled the spice trade (through horrific and not to be brushed over methods) only to become the bearers of bad taste. Britain is in many ways the laughing stock of the food world, but how did it get that way? How did a cold and grey land of constant drizzle, but one with a rich supply of spice and trade, establish a cuisine so... beige?
“What is British cuisine?” Dr Lindsay Neill, a Senior Lecturer of Hospitality at AUT, asks me.
It’s a complex question. If we want to ignore the complexities of food in a modern, globalised context for a moment (we’ll get there) and simply focus on ‘traditional’ British cuisine, Dr Neill says people see it as “overcooked, stodgy, bland food with all the colour boiled out.” He then tells me a sweet story of a time his aunt boiled cabbage for four hours, leaving a smell that penetrates his memory to this day. “So British food is so bad it induces trauma?” My eyes light up at the prospect of my article being filled with snappy one liners and jokes. “Overcooking isn't a cuisine,” Dr Neill reminds me. “Less is more” and if you take away overcooking food, you take away a lot of the issues people have with British food.
Okay so British food isn’t bad (even jellied eels?) British people are just bad cooks?
“You have to look at the context and history.” People were poor, their meat and fish weren’t always fresh or of good quality and there were no refrigerators - people had to really cook their food. That mentality probably carried over a little to home cooks, but I think today your average cook is going to be a lot better than even 20 years ago.
So far I am skeptical. British food is bad because they were poor and it made everyone bad at cooking? Every country was poor at one stage weren’t they? The French weren’t always fancy and rich. China was for many years a developing nation and yet they have a rich and diverse cuisine that is flourishing across the globe.
“Food is informed by abundance and scarcity” says Dr Neill. Britain had a lot of beef and sheep and they used them heavily in their food. This included utilising all parts of the animal, often out of necessity, resulting in some of the more questionable dishes we know (eg Black pudding.) Asia on the other hand, had a wealth of locally grown herbs and spices and they used those. As time has gone on and there's been a paradigm shift. Meat is no longer scarce for most people, so we aren’t going to be impressed by a meat heavy diet, nor one that utilises entrails and offcuts. But one that is full of spices we can’t grow ourselves, or are seen as new and exotic to us, will be. Once expendable income became more common and people began to eat out for status and experience, they turned to foreign and exotic foods. In a country such as New Zealand, or of course Britain, where the majority of people are of British descent, they aren’t going to turn to beans on toast. But can beans on toast even be fancy? I decided to go somewhere rich and white to find out.
“Does British food suck?”
“No,” Mylam Sloan, owner of The Patriot in Devonport, is quick to reply. It was always going to be a longshot asking the owner of a British pub to side with me on this.
“So why do people think it does?”
“British people are proud of their working class roots and everyman culture, and that impacts their food. It’s quite basic, it’s humble, it’s no nonsense food. It’s not seen as exotic or exciting by a lot of people”. He goes on to (predictably) side with Dr Neill, and tells me bad cooks have tarnished its reputation. “I grew up in the 1980s when no one could cook. We all had the Edmonds cook book and did our best. There was no variety, we had one channel on the TV whereas now we have countless channels and they are all playing cooking shows!”
Pictured below: A list ranking terrible looking food above other terrible looking food.
But bad cooking isn't inherently British. I have no doubt many French and Japanese children lament the terrible cooking of their own parents. Why do they not suffer the same image problems? Well Mylam also believes that ‘everyman’ culture of Britain has impacted its marketability. “If people are going to go out and spend money they want to feel it’s worth it. They are going to want fancy and exotic not humble and homely.” So maybe British food isn’t destined to be in fine dining restaurants across the globe, as opposed to French food, and the French themselves, who pride themselves as tastemakers. An image Dr Neill tells me, is a lie. Like the British, much of French food is humble in origin. They had times of poverty and necessity and this informed the food they ate. But they have pulled off the world's greatest marketing campaign thanks to King Louis the XIV.
During the 1600s the Spanish were the elites of Europe, but King Louis, in an effort to overthrow them, established elaborate and glamorous courts where he encouraged artists, fashion designers, writers and chefs to provide them with the best of the best. The only catch was it had to all be French. This resulted in a third of all Parisians at the time entering the fashion and textile industry, and aristocrats across the globe wearing their clothes. In order to read the now latest literature, people learned French. At a time when the average person could not read, this furthered the image of French culture being the culture of the upper class. This image spread to all things French and persists to this day, a stark contrast to the working class ethos of British, and subsequently Kiwi, culture and an example of why people will happily pay to eat snails but not a jellied eel. By this point I was feeling a little defeated. If the French are just good marketers, could Britain really rebrand themselves into culinary elites? People seem to love Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver after all, and The Patriot seems to be doing pretty well for itself. Are jellied eels actually yum? Is it true that bad cooks and a working class culture have given it all a bad rap? But given what a bad rap exactly? What even is British food? Yeah jellied eels are gross, (I mean it has to be, right?) but to judge British food on jellied eels is to judge Swedish food on Surströmming.
Today over half the food consumed in Britain is produced overseas and an influx of immigration, alongside the globalisation of information, means a traditional spotted dick (that's the real name yes) served with a saffron glaze isn’t unlikely, nor is an English roast heavy in cumin. British cuisine has evolved along with the rest of the world. If you go on google right now, and search ‘what is Britain's national dish’ you will get an answer you may not expect. It’s chicken tikka masala. A dish many of us would probably associate with South Asian cuisine is apparently the national dish of a country firmly in Western Europe. Believed to have been developed in Britain by Bangladeshi immigrants in the 1960s, it raises a complex question about food and identity. Is a food identified by its history, its place of conception or the identity of its creators? Were the chefs that created it considered Bangladeshi or British? This speaks to larger issues of immigration, racism, cultural appropriation and our general acceptance of cultures not our own.
Mylam also believes that ‘every man’ culture of Britain has impacted its marketability. “If people are going to go out and spend money they want to feel it’s worth it. They are going to want fancy and exotic not humble and homely.”
What does it say that a nation more diverse than ever, more divided than ever, and fuelled by racist, anti-immigrant post-Brexit sentiment heralds a dish created by Bangladeshi immigrants, as British? A claim that in many ways feels more British than the dish itself.
Across the globe this trend repeats. New York’s Chinatown draws tourists from all over the world and is credited with creating many ‘American Chinese’ dishes. And amidst the COVID pandemic elderly Asian Americans have faced unprecedented attacks, something mainstream US media continues to largely ignore. Elsewhere in the US a white man pioneered ‘Tex Mex’ cuisine by taking Mexican food, changing it, and spreading it across Texas, a state that itself was stolen from Mexico. South Africa gave us Nando’s in 1987, an apparently Portuguese restaurant that serves recipes learned from African locals in Mozambique, seven years before the end of apartheid in 1994. And here in Aotearoa we will sit down for dinner, enjoy a plate of roast ‘kūmara’ and recycle racist news topics that unfairly treat Māori for dinner table talk.
What is British food, is a complex question. Does British food suck, is also a complex question. Many of their traditional dishes probably do, many of them probably don’t. The same can be said for most likely every nation on earth. In a modern society how we categorise food is becoming more of a grey area, but what is not a grey area is that food is a reflection of culture and identity, and is something that ties, and differentiates, us all. You are more than welcome to enjoy tikka masala and I am not denying that roast kūmara is delicious, but what the identity of that food says about us, may be a lot more than just how hungry we are.