10 of the Most Popular British Foods

Take a look at some of the best traditional foods from the United Kingdom, in the first part of our series on British food.

Of course, each of the countries and regions that make up the UK all have their own local specialities. But there are some foods that are popular throughout the United Kingdom. You might find that the recipes vary slightly depending on where you eat them, but these are all dishes that you’ll find eaten in homes and restaurants throughout the land.

So whether you’re planning a UK road trip, visiting one of the countries of the UK or just exploring your own local area, here are 10 dishes that we think you’ll want to try out on your travels. 

This is the first in a series of posts exploring the traditional food and drink of the UK. We’ll be taking a closer look at the traditional foods of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in later posts.

The Traditional Sunday Roast

So let’s start off with one of the most traditional British foods – the good old roast Sunday lunch!

This used to be a regular weekly fixture in British family homes, but nowadays it’s not such a common occurrence. But you’ll still find that many people in the UK enjoy a Sunday roast dinner from time to time. They may cook it at home or go out and let someone else do the heavy lifting.

The centrepiece of any Sunday Roast is a joint of roast meat, which is often roast beef, roast chicken or perhaps a roast leg of lamb or joint of pork. Some people may like roast game when it’s in season, or have a vegetarian alternative like a whole roast cauliflower.

A medley of vegetable side dishes always accompany the main dish, with at least one potato dish. This may be mashed potato, roast potatoes or something like a rich, creamy potato dauphinoise. Roast chicken or pork will often be served with stuffing, and roast beef should always come with a big fluffy Yorkshire pudding!

Each meat has a specific sauce that is served alongside. This includes bread sauce or cranberry sauce for chicken and mustard or horseradish sauce for beef. Redcurrant sauce or mint sauce are served with roast lamb and apple sauce traditionally accompanies roast pork. 

And no Sunday Roast would be complete without plenty of hot gravy!

Hot Pudding and Custard

Don’t forget to leave room for another of the most popular British foods: a hot pudding served with lashings of steaming custard.

Britain is famous for its love of a hot pudding. Some of the most popular recipes include Sticky Toffee Pudding, Treacle Tart, Jam Roly Poly, Spotted Dick and Sussex Pond pudding.

Custard is the usual accompaniment, but you might prefer to top yours with cream or even ice cream.

A Full Cooked Breakfast

At one point, many people in the UK would start their day with a cooked breakfast. Of course, now we’re more likely to grab a bowl of cereal or something quick to go.

But a cooked breakfast is still a pleasure for many of us from time to time. 

If you’re staying in a hotel or eating breakfast in a cafe or restaurant, you’ll see it listed on the menu as a Full English, Full Scottish or Full Welsh breakfast, but in Northern Ireland it is known as an Ulster Fry.

On your plate, you’ll find some fried or grilled sausages and rashers of bacon. Alongside there will be eggs that may be fried, scrambled or poached. There might also be black pudding, tomatoes, mushrooms and baked beans. And arguments will inevitably ensue about whether the beans should be on the plate or in their own little dish. 

A Full Scottish breakfast might also feature haggis, tattie scones (potato cakes) and slices of square sausage. If you’re tucking into a Full Welsh breakfast, you might see some laverbread (a type of cooked seaweed) and Glamorgan sausages. These are a vegetarian sausage made from a mix of cheese, leeks and breadcrumbs. And an Ulster Fry will probably include potato farls and some slices of white pudding. 

Wherever you’re eating your cooked breakfast, you will also have fried bread or toast alongside. There’ll also be plenty of tea or coffee and possibly a glass of fruit juice.

A traditional afternoon tea stand, laden with finger sandwiches, scones and little cakes

Afternoon Tea

The tradition of Afternoon Tea was started by the Duchess of Bedford in 1840, to keep hunger at bay until dinner was served at the fashionably late hour of 8pm. She asked for a tray of bread and butter, cake and tea to be brought to her room, and this habit became a trend.

These days, taking Afternoon Tea is an indulgent way to celebrate a birthday or other special occasion. Of course, it’s also a wonderful way to catch up with friends. 

Traditional Afternoon Tea is served on a three tier china stand. One tier will feature a selection of dainty finger sandwiches, then there will be scones served with jam and cream on another tier. The final tier will carry a selection of small cakes and pastries and the whole thing will be accompanied by a pot of tea. You might also enjoy a celebratory glass of Champagne with your Afternoon tea. 

Some places now serve alternative Afternoon Teas in a less traditional way. You may also see a Gentlemen’s Afternoon Tea which features more hearty fare like sausages rolls or small pies.

A Slice of Toast

It might seem odd to include a slice of toast in this list. But the truth is, most Brits love a slice of toast and everyone has their own favourite topping.

Will you go for a slice of artisan sourdough, home-made bloomer or just good old white sliced? And do you top it with butter, margarine or something a bit more exciting like chilli, avocado and a perfectly poached egg…

Then we get into things like gooey, melting cheese on toast or that perennial favourite, beans on toast. Or more divisive options like Marmite on toast – do you love it or hate it?

A slice of toast is the bedrock of the quick breakfast, easy lunch or light dinner, not to mention the perfect late-night snack!

The rest of the foods in this selection are all festive foods from the United Kingdom. They’re traditionally eaten at Easter or at Christmas, but in some cases they’re now eaten at other times too.  

Traditional Easter Simnel cake with marzipan decoration on a white plate, with a cup of tea in the background

Simnel Cake

Simnel Cake is a light fruit cake which is traditionally eaten around Easter time. It was originally associated with Mother’s Day (or Mothering Sunday) but is now more commonly eaten on Easter Sunday.

The cake has a disc of marzipan running through the middle of it, and another disc sits on top. It’s usually decorated with a circle of 11 balls of marzipan which represent Jesus’ disciples, minus Judas Iscariot. There is sometimes a 12th marzipan ball to represent Jesus himself.

The cake has been made since medieval times, and although there have been various recipes from around the country, the recipe that became most popular originated from Shrewsbury in Shropshire.

A plate of traditional hot cross buns

Hot Cross Buns

Another popular Easter-time food is the hot cross bun. This is a sweet, spiced and fruited bun which is topped with a cross that represents the crucifix. They’re delicious when split and buttered, but you can also toast them before slathering with plenty of butter.

Hot Cross Buns are traditionally eaten on Good Friday, the Friday before Easter Sunday. These days you’ll see them in the supermarkets all year around, but you really can’t beat a freshly baked home-made Hot Cross Bun!

Slice of Christmas cake with dessert fork, remainder of cake in festive background

Christmas Cake

Christmas cake is an important part of traditional Christmas celebrations in the UK. They’re widely available in shops and supermarkets, but many people still make one as a part of the build up to Christmas.

A traditional Christmas cake is packed full of dried fruit and nuts. It is made several weeks ahead of Christmas Day and then ‘fed’ with brandy or another spirit each week, which helps to make the cake moist and long lasting.

In the final days before Christmas, the cake is covered with marzipan and decorated with icing. 

A plate of mince pies with brandy cream on the side, and a Christmas tree in the background

Mince Pies

Despite the name, mince pies don’t contain any actual minced meat. 

Originally, mincemeat was a spiced mixture of minced meat and fruit combined with wine or vinegar. But over time, the meat was left out and it became a wholly sweet mixture of suet, fruit, nuts and candied peel.  

Mince pies are little pastry cases filled with this mixture, and nowadays they are often seen shops from Autumn onwards. They’re delicious eaten cold or warm, and even better when you top them with a dollop of cream or brandy butter.

A Christmas pudding topped with red berries

Christmas Pudding

Christmas pudding is the traditional finale to Christmas dinner in the UK. It’s a rich, steamed sponge pudding that’s full of fruit and nuts. Like the Christmas cake, it’s made several weeks in advance so that the flavours can meld and mature. 

The pudding is traditionally doused in alcohol and set alight before being presented to the Christmas dinner table. Once the flames have died down, the pudding is served with custard, cream or a boozy rum sauce. 

These are just a few of the most popular British foods, and we’ll be taking a look at some other traditional UK foods in the rest of this series.

What’s your favourite traditional British food?

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