Seven British foods that aren’t actually British

By Sara Semic

While everyday French foods number the classic coq au vin or ratatouille, and everyday Thai food boasts mouth-watering dumplings or aromatic ginger and coconut chicken soups, what does traditional British fare have to offer? Think comfort and hearty dishes like the Sunday roast or steak and kidney pie, rather than tongue-tingling delicacies.  

But how many of our British culinary stalwarts actually originated in Britain? Here are seven un-British ‘classics’ that might surprise you…

1.     Fish and chips


The most quintessential of national takeaways, the marriage of oily, battered golden fish and fluffy chips is in fact a humble immigrant dish, first thought to have been introduced to Britain in the 17th century, by Jewish settlers from Portugal and Spain. The fish was usually sold by street sellers from large trays that hung around their necks, and Charles Dickens first mentioned ‘fried fish warehouses’ in his Oliver Twist serial in 1839. The exact location of the first fish and chip shop however, is a contentious issue. Some claim that the first official shop was opened in East London during 1860 by a Jewish immigrant called Joseph Malin, while others proclaim that a northerner named John Lees was the first, selling his fish and chips out of a wooden hut at Mossley market in Lancashire.


2.     Tea


The British people’s love affair with tea runs deep. As a nation, we drink a whopping 165 million cups of it per day. But the humble brew, now a national symbol, didn’t arrive at our shores until the mid 17th century – that’s a whole century after coffee.  On 23 September 1658, the London republican newspaper Mercurius Politicus carried the first advert for tea in the British Isles, announcing that a “China drink called by the Chinese, Tcha, by other Nationals Tay alias Tee” had arrived at a coffee house in the city. However, it was only made popular thanks to Charles II’s wife, Catherine of Braganza, who drank copious amounts of the beverage and helped turn it into such a fashionable drink. 


3.     Ketchup


You’d be hard-pressed to find a British kitchen without either a glass bottle or squeezy tub of Heinz ketchup. Since being introduced to the UK in 1876, Heinz ketchup now sells an estimated 650 million bottles a year worldwide. But the sweet and tangy tomato condiment actually originated in 17th century China as a sauce made from the brine of pickled fish. From there, it made its way to the Malay peninsula and to Singapore, where English colonists first encountered what locals called “kecap” in the 18th century. It was soon transformed into a sauce made with other bases such as mushrooms or pickled walnuts before becoming the tomato-based version we recognise today.

4.     Cauliflower Cheese

A staple of British cuisine, cauliflower is believed to have originated from Cyprus, a former British colony. Bechamel sauce was used extensively in Greek and Cypriot cooking of the 19th and early 20th century, and Anglo-Cypriots claim to have introduced the dish to the UK.


5.     Beef Wellington


This indulgent dish of beef baked in pastry was created to commemorate the victory of the Duke of Wellington after he successfully defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo in 1815. Given the dish’s clear resemblance to the French speciality of filet de boeuf en croute, it would seem that the name was a timely patriotic rebranding of a French classic. But it appears that this thoroughly European dish did not actually enter our recipe books until the 20th century, after being popularised by Julia Child who included it in her two-volume bestseller, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.


6.     Mince Pie


Although these fruity and buttery Christmas mouthfuls are themselves a British invention, the idea of mixing dried fruits and spices can be traced to the 13th century, when returning crusaders brought with them Middle Eastern recipes that contained meats, fruits and spices. The pie crusts were originally rectangular and known as coffins (the word merely meant ‘box’ until the 1500s when it gained its morbid connotations). During the 17th century, the pies were stigmatised by Puritans, who called them “Idolatrie in a crust”! But after the monarchy returned, mince pies reclaimed their culinary status and became circular in shape as well as sweeter in taste.


7.     Marmite

When Tesco announced that it would withdraw the much-loved British spread from its shelves as a result of Brexit and a dispute over pricing with its manufacturer, Unilever, mass hysteria spread across the UK. But did you know that back in the 19th century, before Marmite was even called Marmite, it was accidentally invented by a German scientist called Justus Liebig, who discovered that brewer’s yeast could be concentrated, bottled and eaten? Shortly after in 1902, the Marmite Food Company was founded in Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire, where the raw ingredients were readily available from the town’s many breweries.