Here, Eat This: A Beginner's Guide to British Cuisine
Half of the fun of visiting England is the food -- especially the fresh butter, bread, meat and sweets.
Photos by Katharine Shilcutt
With acclaimed British restaurant Feast closing in August, now's the time to acquaint yourself with its excellent English menu before it's too late. Luckily, chef Richard Knight will be opening another restaurant in the Heights within a year, and there are plenty of other British restaurants in Houston with hearty pub fare on offer.
British food has been unfairly maligned for years as bland and starchy, but modern British cooking in restaurants such as The Fat Duck, The Three Fishes and, yes, even Restaurant Gordon Ramsay have done much to change that perception over the last decade. Current British cuisine embraces traditional cooking and regional specialties like Yorkshire pudding or Cornish pasties, framed with fresh, seasonal ingredients and modern kitchen techniques.
However progressive British cooking gets, however, the comforting old classics such as meat pies or Sunday roasts are still enormously popular. It's this base of English standards we'll examine in this week's Here, Eat This.
Fish and chips at Foster's in England.
Fish and chips
Chips are a cross between steak fries and potato wedges, although in America they'll more typically be served as simply french fries. The fish is lightly battered, usually cod (although halibut, haddock and hake are popular choices, too) and always better with a few dashes of malt vinegar and lemon across the top before dipping into tartar sauce. In a pinch, fish finger sandwiches (frozen fish sticks with HP brown sauce and/or ketchup) will do.
Bangers and mash
Meat and potatoes are recurring themes in British cooking. And if one isn't there, the other will be present double to compensate. I once ate at a pub in Holmes Chapel that served me a winter root vegetable pie with two kinds of potatoes on the side. Bangers and mash are the best example of the meat-and-potatoes preference, being simply a plate of sausage (bangers) and mashed potatoes (mash).
Brown sauce with ketchup and Colman's mustard at The Bull & Bear.
HP brown sauce / malt vinegar
HP brown sauce is the British version of ketchup, improving nearly everything it touches. Imagine ketchup with a tangier, maltier edge to it from the addition of Worcester sauce and malt vinegar. Speaking of malt vinegar, it goes on nearly everything too. You'll need to acidity of both the brown sauce and vinegar to cut through all the fat and starch of many dishes.
Steak and kidney pie at Feast.
Meat pie / Cornish pasty
A meat pie is exactly what it sounds like: meat (and sometimes vegetables) and gravy baked into a pie crust. In its earliest incarnations, the tough "coffin lid" top of the pie was typically discarded or given to servants. These days, the buttery, flaky pastry dough is often the best part of a meat pie. My personal favorites in Houston are found in the frozen foods section of British Isles, the British necessities store in Rice Village, and crisp up nicely in the oven. There are specific versions of the meat pie such as a steak and kidney pie, although standard meat pies usually contain beef or lamb. A Cornish pasty (pronounced PASS-tee) is the portable version of a meat pie, sort of the equivalent of a British empanada, also filled with potatoes, swede (a.k.a. rutabaga) and onion.
Shepherd's pie / cottage pie
Unlike a meat pie, a shepherd's pie is distinguished by its crust of mashed potatoes rather than pastry dough. A true shepherd's pie will feature ground lamb in addition to peas and carrots, while a cottage pie usually features beef instead. The names, however, are interchangeable more often than not. Both are delicious.
Indian food in Britain has the combined power of Tex-Mex, Chinese and Italian food in America, having "long surpassed the more traditional fish and chips in popularity by an embarrassing margin," according to The Telegraph. Over 200 years after the first curry house was established in England, tikka masala take-away spots have become as omnipresent as chippies (a.k.a. quick fish and chip shops). British curry is quite a bit tamer than Indian, however. You can try the typical British curry profile for yourself with some powdered Bisto Chip Shop curry (found at British Isles or in larger grocery stores). Pour it over your chips for full effect.
Beans / mushy peas
Along with chips, beans and/or mushy peas are some of the most popular side items in England. The slightly sweet baked beans -- often flavored with pork -- are found in classic dishes like the full English breakfast or eaten very simply on a piece of toast as a snack. Mushy peas come with everything from fish and chips to Sunday roast, and differ from our own green English peas with their thick, stew-like consistency that's sweetened with mint and/or sugar.
Full English breakfast / bubble and squeak
A "full English" (or "fry up) comes with a standard retinue of ingredients that are meant to power you through a cold, miserable day of walking and/or dealing with public transit: bacon, fried eggs, grilled tomatoes, fried mushrooms, fried bread or toast with butter, sausages and baked beans -- all served with plenty of tea. Bigger fry ups will feature black pudding and/or hash browns. The bacon isn't the typical "streaky bacon" common in America, but rather what we know as Canadian bacon. My favorite full English is found on Saturday and Sunday mornings at The Bull & Bear Tavern.
Sunday roast is a reward for sitting through church service and/or making it home in one piece after a night down the pub. Although beef roast is traditionally popular, lamb is gaining on it. The roast is always served with Yorkshire pudding (a pop-over of souffle-like heights), gravy, mashed potatoes and vegetables. It resembles a Thanksgiving dinner in magnitude, yet is still considered a weekly affair. You can indulge in it yourself every Sunday at The Red Lion. Bubble and squeak is an ingenious way of using up any leftovers from Sunday roast by combining them in a pan with cabbage.
The crisp aisle in a Cheshire Sainsbury's.
Crisps are potato chips, but not like the ones we have here. While we have Cool Ranch and Nacho Cheese-flavored chips, England is rocking Worcester Sauce, Pickled Onion, Ketchup, Prawn Cocktail and Roast Chicken-flavored crisps. Walker's are the crisp of choice, being the British equivalent of Lay's. Prawn Cocktail is a personal favorite, tasting more like the tangy cocktail sauce than the shrimp.
Butties are sandwiches, usually on white bread. They are uniformly terrible for you, being made of things like Nutella (Nutella butties), french fries (chip butties) or bacon (bacon butties) and a slathering of butter. They are also amazing.
Tea time, with pain au raisin.
Tea has several meanings in Britain: It's a beverage, first and foremost, enjoyed throughout the day. It had replaced gin (yes, gin) as the beverage of choice by the mid-18th century, and its popularity has never diminished. Earl Gray isn't usually the tea of choice, despite what Jean-Luc Picard would have you believe, but rather English breakfast tea -- a blend of black teas including Assam, Ceylon and Kenyan teas. PG Tips are my favorite tea bags to steep, and widely available in America. Tea is also a mealtime descriptor, which -- depending on the time of day -- can refer to an afternoon tea break or dinner. At afternoon tea, the hot beverage is traditionally enjoyed with scones, jam and clotted cream, the latter of which is the only "cream" you'll see put into tea. Milk is the dairy product of choice, with sugar added less frequently.
The American sweet tooth has nothing on the British sweet tooth. Packets of crisps and tins of biscuits, or cookies, are what I gravitate toward immediately when I hit British Isles. Items like Bakewell tarts -- shortbread tarts filled with jam -- and Walker's shortbread, which is surely made with at least 75 percent butter, are personal favorites. Equally craveable are Penguin biscuits (milk chocolate-covered wafers filled with chocolate cream), Wagon Wheels (the British version of a Moon Pie), Jammie Dodgers and McVitie's chocolate HobNobs (thin, crispy oatmeal cookies covered in milk chocolate). And this is just the tip of the pudding (a.k.a. dessert) iceberg.
Butcher shop near Manchester.
Where to get started:
The Bull & Bear Tavern: A location in the ex-pat dense west suburbs of Houston means that The Bull & Bear is often packed with Englishmen, Irishmen, Scots and Welshmen -- all likely there for the massive selection of sporting matches The Bull & Bear screens daily. When a match is on, settle in at your table -- if you can find one -- and indulge in comforting pub dishes like chicken curry and a mound of chips or the best cottage pie in town. No tables? Score a seat at the long, well-tended mahogany bar.
The Red Lion: Don't let the red pleather-upholstered booths and faux Tudor timbers fool you. This isn't just another fake British pub. This is an authentically fake British pub. Founder and owner Craig Mallinson is the son of British folk singer Sarah Mallinson, and he bakes the Cornish pasties himself. He even has the "fruity" variety of HP sauce to slather on your sausage rolls. Order up a hearty ale to go with your curry and prepare to into a world of pleasure.
The Richmond Arms: Richmond Arms is a lively, old-fashioned pub, complete with seasonal brews, too many beers on tap to count and a bevy of Celtic accents ringing throughout the establishment. Even during the week, an evening here feels like an Irish beer advertisement, with all the blazing fireplaces, pouring bartenders and smiling patrons. The pub is also a must for soccer and rugby fans, since it beams over the entirety of both sports' seasons from across the pond. Picnic tables are available outside for the smokers and sun-worshippers, but it's tough to beat the treasure on the inside walls: an array of photographs of regulars' friends and family, and newspaper clippings about the art of brewing beer and other entertaining topics.
Chips at the De Trafford Arms in Alderley Edge.
The Black Labrador Pub: Well-worn wooden floors, low ceilings, British memorabilia, a large bar and good ole English pub food all go to make this one of Houston's favorite pubs. With a great selection of beers on tap, you're sure to enjoy the food here. A solid shepherd's pie, an excellent ploughman's lunch, decent fish and chips, and beef Wellington may well remind you of your last trip across the pond. Don't leave without trying the raspberry trifle.
King's Head Pub: This brand-new pub in the Energy Corridor may not look like much from the outside, tucked into a stucco strip center under a dentist's office, but it has a great pedigree: The King's Head Pub was recently opened by British ex-pat Michael Holliday, who also opened The Richmond Arms and The Stag's Head. And not only is everyone welcome here, dogs are too -- on the big patio. The King's Head shows nearly every footie match and even offers the occasional "Scottish night" with all the traditional Highlands tunes you can bear.
The Queen Vic: A bit of Britain in Houston -- and a bit of India, too -- keeps us coming back to The Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen in Upper Kirby. Indeed, it's the kind of place where you can get so cozy with a craft beer and a curry with chips, you might never want to leave. Befitting its name, the pub also has a brilliant beer selection, including hard-to-find classics and limited-batch Houston brews.
British Isles: The one-stop-shop for British ex-pats in Rice Village sells everything from Caswell-Massey toiletries and BBC comedies on DVD to a full grocery store of British foods. This is the number one place in Houston to close your eyes and think of England.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.