A Guide to Mostly Misunderstood British Foods

Your guide to jellied eels, spotted dick and everything in between.

By Victoria Haneveer October 24, 2016

Spotted dick photo by photobucket jcsd08

Is spotted dick better if it's microwaveable? 

Image: Photobucket

Despite the fact we share a common language, there are lots of ways British English can baffle Americans, especially when it comes to food. Take "pudding," for example. In Britain pudding is just an alternative word for dessert. In the U.S. it means, well, pudding! And then we have ominous-sounding dishes like jellied eels, soles in coffins and spotted dick. Do you know what angels on horseback are, or how to make toad in the hole?

Read on and discover some strange-sounding traditional British foods, some delicious and others which are, let's just say, something of an acquired taste.

Shutterstock 14734576 jzopmi

This is as pretty as a bowl of jellied eels will ever look.

Image: Alice Levitt

Curious Meat and Fish Dishes

We've mentioned jellied eels so let's begin with those. The River Thames, which runs through London, used to be so polluted that nothing but eels could survive in there. Poorer river workers would eat a lot of eels. However, this was in the days before refrigeration so the eels would have to be smoked or encased in gelatin to remain preserved. What's worse than jellied eels? How about rotten eels? Think of jellied eels as pieces of eel in fishy Jell-O. This dish is still popular in London today.

Stargazy pie photo by victoria haneveer avexet

It's sort of cute, right? Right?

Stargazey pie is another dish which looks rather sinister but apparently tastes good. It is a pilchard (member of the herring family), potato and egg pie, and the name comes from the fact that the fish heads are left sticking out of the crust "gazing at the stars." Cornish cooks do this so the oils can seep back into the pie.

Perhaps you've heard of toad in the hole, an English dish which doesn't actually include toads. Toad in the hole is made by adding sausage links to an egg, flour and milk batter, then baking it in the oven. The result, when done right resembles a giant popover in texture. This dish was created as a way of making a little bit of meat go further and is supposed to resemble toads looking out of holes—a smirking reference to the entombed animals of legend. Bangers and mash is simply sausages (usually Cumberland style) served with mashed potatoes.

Black pudding, or blood sausage, might sound like a Halloween treat, but it's actually a way of using every single piece of a butchered animal. The sausage is prepared by mixing pork or beef fat and blood with oatmeal or other grain, which results in a bread-like effect. Black pudding is generally served alongside bacon, eggs, baked beans and toast as part of the classic English breakfast.

Haggis is another curious dish made from the heart, lungs and liver of a sheep. Perhaps because of Robert Burns' famous Address to the Haggis, it's become associated with Scotland, but the word first appeared in 15th century England. The dish used to be cooked in a sheep's stomach but today artificial casing is typically used instead. Fans describe haggis as a nutty, spiced granular meatloaf (that oatmeal again!), and it's supposed to be good with potatoes, mashed rutabaga and brown gravy. Soles in coffins (a play on the word 'souls') is made by layering sole filets on potato skins. Angels on horseback are bacon-wrapped oysters, their spiritual opposition, devils on horseback, are bacon-wrapped prunes. Tasty and good for the digestion too!

Bangers and mash photo from pexels iveszb

Bangers and mash, presented all elegant-like.

Image: Pexels

Interesting Appetizers, Sides and Snacks

Mushy peas are the standard side dish for fish and chips—they're made of marrowfat peas and a pinch of bicarbonate of soda. Bubble and squeak is another delicious side, and can be served as part of breakfast or with any kind of meat or fish. Made by combining leftover mashed potatoes and cooked vegetables, and frying the mixture in patties or one large piece, bubble and squeak was popular during the rationing era or World War II. The name comes from the sounds the mixture makes while cooking.

Scotch eggs have gained popularity in Houston gastropubs, but they're easy to make yourself. Just encase a boiled egg in sausage meat then dip it in egg yolk and dredge in breadcrumbs. Deep fry it until golden, and you've got, if not the healthiest snack, then at least one that is equally good served hot or cold. You can swap the sausage meat for black pudding or haggis if you're feeling brave! A doorstep sandwich is simply a sandwich made with very thick bread slices—there is no stone involved. Scotch woodcock is scrambled eggs over anchovy paste-smeared toast. Where is the woodcock? Well actually there isn't any! We Brits just like to be contrary. Think of it as a cousin to Welsh rarebit. Speaking of anchovies, Gentleman's Relish is an anchovy paste which can be added to toast or sandwiches, or used to make Scotch woodcock.

A Dessert by Any Other Name

Let's start with spotted dick. Hold the snickers, you at the back. The butt of many jokes and puns, spotted dick is just a sponge pudding with raisins, which dates back to at least the 1800s. The name wasn't funny back then but it kind of is now. The dried fruit is the 'spots' and the pastry dough is made with mutton fat or suet, which is then boiled or steamed. Deep-fried Mars bars are perhaps one of the least healthy desserts ever created. Fish and chip shops, which used to sell just fish and chips—and of course mushy peas—were suddenly battering anything customers would bring in. This craze began in Scotland and Mars bars were the first artery-clogger on the scene, soon followed by pizza, ice cream and anything else that came into people's heads as being remotely deep-fryable. Knickerbocker glory is just a fancy name for an ice cream sundae and was made centuries before it appeared in Harry Potter.

Remember it's not only the U.K. that has strange-sounding foods though. I was bemused the first time I heard of Texas caviar and then you guys have Frito pie and beanless chili. I wasn't sure why your Texas caviar is made with beans and yet you refuse to put them in your chilis, but I've sample both dishes, and yes they work. I was even more confused when trying to decipher what chicken fried steak and chicken fried chicken were. One question: Where's the steak-fried steak?

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