Is there such a thing as an English cuisine? It is telling that we’ve even had to borrow the word from the French. As far back as 1861, Mrs Beeton was lamenting that: “Modern cookery stands so greatly indebted to the gastronomic propensities of our French neighbours that many of their terms are adopted and applied by English artists.”
And it’s not just our near neighbours whose food we’ve co-opted: the American turkey has replaced the pre-Victorian choice of goose or duck at Christmas and Sir Walter Raleigh’s potatoes quickly overtook earlier staple root vegetables. Indeed, very few historically “English” delicacies stand up to scrutiny as such, from roast beef (we were a nation of boilers for most of our history, according to the chef Fergus Henderson) to the ubiquitous cuppa, as imported from our colonies.
Startlingly, the menu — sorry, “bill of fare” — from which Chaucer or Shakespeare would have eaten is full of ingredients and recipes that are all but forgotten today. As Annette Hope records in Londoners’ Larder, a medieval noble would have eaten birds such as larks and heron and had his “worts” — root vegetables — supplemented by dandelions, hyssop and nettles. The best-known cookbook (or scroll) of the late 14th century, The Forme of Cury, contained recipes for peacock and porpoise, as well as the lampreys that famously did for Henry I.
The other side of the coin is that many foreign dishes came to England far earlier than you might think. The Forme of Cury also offers recipes for “macrows” (macaroni cheese) and “rauioles” (ravioli), meaning that these were eaten in England well before bangers and mash or strawberries and cream. The latter, after all, was reputedly first paired up by Thomas Wolsey — although the native wild strawberry he would have eaten, Fragaria vesca, has since been cast aside in favour of larger varieties.
Similarly, the English had a thing for spices well before the first curry house opened in Portman Square in London in 1809. The country was an enthusiastic importer in the Middle Ages — after all, our only native spice is mustard. Saffron Walden in Essex was called Chipping Walden until it became the nation’s centre of saffron-growing in the 1500s; and ginger — now the mainstay of countless Thai and Chinese takeaways — arrived then, too.
Seen against this background, the emergence of that ultimate British bastard dish — chicken tikka masala — seems almost inevitable. Some claim it originated as Punjabi street food in the 1850s, others that it’s the result of an Indian chef in Glasgow, armed only with a tin of condensed tomato soup, trying to appease a customer who had complained that his meal was too dry. Whatever the truth, we order it by the bucketload — and now export it to hotels in India.
The result of all this mixing and matching is that although many regional English dishes still survive, it’s hard to pinpoint a distinctive cuisine in the way you might with France or Italy. According to the latest figures from the British Hospitality Association, we now have 11,000 “ethnic” restaurants (primarily Chinese and Indian but increasingly Mexican, too) and 5,500 “European” restaurants in this country. That leaves 11,000 “other” restaurants — tellingly, the association doesn’t record how many are English or British. “It’s very difficult to define,” says a spokesman.
It’s probably most helpful to think of English food as being like the English language: unusually elastic and relaxed about incorporating foreign influences, even at the expense of its own identity. But when you can walk along a high street in even a smallish English town and smell peri-peri, cinnamon and garlic alongside the salty tang of fish and chips, who would have it any other way?
Helen Lewis-Hasteley is an assistant editor of the New Statesman