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The Brit List: Ten Extremely Misunderstood British Foods
There are certain recipes in any culture’s diet which cause consternation and disgust if you haven’t grown up eating them. I, for example, am not mad about the idea of okra, or sheep’s eyes, or that sandwich Elvis liked with all the bacon and jelly and peanut butter. However, I AM prepared to give each of these things a try, in the name of gastronomic research.
Although, I probably will wait a while before researching the eyeball thing too heavily. There are other experiences I’d rather have first. Almost anything, in fact…
With that in mind, here’s an impassioned plea on behalf of some unfairly maligned British delicacies. I’ve personally tried them all, with one exception, and I am here to tell you that a) they are not gross and b) I did not die.
C’mon, tuck in!
Blah blah blah “they cook it in a sheep’s stomach” blah blah “it’s just minced offal and oats” blah blah. Shut up. You have no reason to criticize how haggis is made (they don’t do the sheep’s stomach thing any more, by the way) and refuse to even try it unless you a) don’t drink milk because of where it comes from, b) don’t eat eggs because of what they are and where they come from and c) are any form of vegetarian or vegan. Yes, the recipe for haggis makes it sound gross, but you know what? It’s not. It’s lovely. It tastes like the best, pepperiest meatloaf you’ve ever eaten, and goes perfectly with some mashed potato, and mashed turnips (or swede) and lots of gravy.
MMMmmm, blood sausage: a packed lunch for a vampire (who likes, y’know, animal blood). As with haggis, the poor humble black pudding comes from a fine tradition of using up every scrap of a butchered animal to make food. So long as you’re killing a pig, why not make full use of all the bits? That’s ecologically friendly. And seeing as you can’t make smoothies out of the blood, black pudding is the next best thing. A perfect addition to the Great British fried breakfast (which you really should save for weekends at most, unless you work in construction or are an athlete of some sort).
At one point, the river Thames, which runs through London, was so polluted that the only fish that could survive within its foul depths was the eel. As a result, London’s poor communities, who worked on the river, tended to have a lot of eel-based recipes. There’s even a district of London called Eel Pie Island. Trouble was, in the days before refrigerators, the only way to store uneaten meat was smoking it, or encasing it in gelatin, a tradition that goes back way before Roman times. So, jellied eels are just bits of eel, in fish-flavored jello, with spices or malt vinegar heaped on top. Turn your nose up if you must, but you’re mocking generations of working class Londoners if you do so. Luckily most of them are dead, so it’s probably fine.
Deep Fried Mars Bars
Stereotypes are evil things. Once the Scots realized that as far as the rest of Europe was concerned their idea of a varied diet was two different colors on the plate, they kind of defiantly ran with it. Suddenly chip shops, which had been happily battering and frying haggis and black pudding (and sausages, mushy pea fritters, spam, fish, fishcakes) for years, were doing likewise with anything at all. The first and most notorious was the deep fried Mars bar, but it was soon followed by ice-cream, pizza, shoe leather, books, whisky, shortbread, the concept of fear and beards. Everything got splashed in the batter and dumped in the fryer, and why? Because WE’RE SCOTTISH, WE FRY STUFF, AWRITE PAL?
All of which overshadowed two salient points: a) deep frying sweet things isn’t new and wasn’t invented by the Scots, and b) what if deep fried Mars bars are really nice?
Marrowfat peas and a little bit of bicarbonate of soda, that’s the secret. The greatest British contribution to world food is clearly cheddar cheese, but fish and chips runs it a close second, and if you’re going to have fish and chips, you need to have mushy peas. There is just something about the combination of flavors, from the fried potato and battered haddock or cod, to the malt vinegar, salt and pillow-soft peas, that is just heavenly. Save it for your non-salad days, of course, but don’t miss out.
Take a boiled egg, encase it in sausage meat, roll it in egg yolk, dip it in breadcrumbs and – yes, I know – deep fry it until golden brown. Then pop it in your picnic basket and head for a sunny field. If you wish to vary things a little, try replacing the sausage meat with haggis or black pudding. *rubs hands together*
This Cornish delicacy is a pilchard, egg and potato pie, where the heads of the pilchards are left poking out of the crust, so that the fish oils flow back into the sub-pastry area. Of course it looks like the fish are staring up at the stars – hence the name – and this might be off-putting to anyone who doesn’t want to see the face of the thing they’re about to eat. Consequently, even though there’s a lovely story to be told about its origins (see The Mousehole Cat), the pie itself can be overlooked as an actual food item. Which is a shame.
Steak and kidney pie
In comparison, this is just a pie that contains bits of steak and kidney and potato, floating in gravy. Back in Victorian times, when oysters where the food of the common man, it used to be steak and oyster pie, but once prices went too high, the shellfish was replaced by kidneys. Now, bearing in mind the fishiness of an oyster, and what a kidney does for a living, I’m unsure whether this makes the pie more or less gross in theory. In practise, it’s a culinary classic, and always has been.
Just a funny name for a sponge pudding with raisins in, that you serve with custard. It wasn’t funny when it was named, and now it is. If the name puts you off eating it, can I have your portion?
Baby Gaga Ice Cream
This is one even I haven’t tried, so I’m prepared to be proven wrong about this. But when a London ice-cream parlor began selling human breast milk ice cream (from a carefully-screened source) last year, it provoked outrage among…well…who, exactly? People who would prefer their milk to come from another species entirely? People who weren’t breast-fed themselves? People who just think the idea of milking a woman for food to be a less than gender-empowered message? Actually that last one is probably fair enough. My tuppence-worth is this: if it’s good enough for a newborn baby, there’s no risk to human health, and it tastes good (and it’s not outright sexist), then why not? We’re not talking about using human milk for coffee creamer here, this is a treat food, and it’s perfectly natural. Now, if they start making ice-cream out of baby formula, I’ll join you on the barricades.
Fraser McAlpine is British: this explains a lot.
To learn more about exotic foods from remote parts of the globe, tune in to No Kitchen Required, BBC America’s original adventure cooking series, Tuesdays at 10/9c beginning April 3. Below, watch the NKR crew discuss the British dishes they can’t stomach.