These days, London is enjoying its newfound status as a culinary capital on par with New York, Paris, or Tokyo. Here, you’ll find every kind of restaurant, and varied culinary influences from around the world. Plus, England is now re-discovering, and modernizing the best of its culinary history.
We met up with Eating London for a four-hour tour of the city’s East End, which has been home to waves of immigrants for centuries. The neighborhood’s layered past is an excellent way to understand how the city has developed — and a great way to stuff your face in the process.
Here are five quintessential — and yes, delicious — English dishes and where to get them today:
In 13th-century England, bread pudding was known as “Dustman’s wedding cake.” Associated with the poorer classes, this dish was first made by soaking leftover stale bread in milk and adding anything from fruit to meat to flavor it. Then, the mixture was steamed to soften it again, fat was added, and it was baked to form a palatable pudding. Bread pudding remains a popular dish in the U.K., but current versions tend to be more sophisticated than in the past.
Where to get it: The English Restaurant occupies one of East London’s oldest buildings: It still retains original features from the late 1600s, plus salvaged oak from Christ Church, Spitalfields which dates back to the 1720s. Here, the bread and butter pudding is made with brioche and comes with a side of custard Cambridge cream, which tastes like melted vanilla bean ice cream. We recommend you scoop out the center, and eat that first, then pour the cream inside to enjoy the rest.
Fish and Chips
Though it was the Portuguese who first battered fish and the Belgians who first thought to fry a sliced potato, it was Joseph Malin — a young Jewish immigrant living in London’s East End — who first combined the two more than 150 years ago. At the time, seafood was so cheap and easily attainable from the nearby port that it was considered a pauper’s food — even oyster shells littered the streets of East London. As the tale goes, Malin would hang a tray from his neck and walk the streets near the docks, selling fish and chips wrapped in newspaper to the men who lined up every day looking for work.
Where to get it: Now London’s most iconic dish, fish and chips is sold virtually everywhere. But for the most authentic experience, head to Poppie’s. When it was eventually ruled unsafe for food to come into contact with newspaper ink, Poppie’s owner — 75-year-old Pat Newland — arranged to have his own paper printed with edible ink, so he could continue to serve fish and chips the old fashioned way. We recommend having them with a side of mushy peas and a liberal coating of vinegar.
Though curry was introduced to the British in India, it has become a fixture in the U.K.’s cuisine. For centuries, the East End was a stopover for immigrants working in the docks, and it was the men shipping goods from Chittagong port in Bengal to London who paved the way for the curry restaurants that would eventually come to line Brick Lane. Today, many people would even call curry a traditional British dish.
Where to get it: Today, Brick Lane is the heart of the London’s Bangladeshi community. Sometimes referred to as curry mile, the cobblestone street is lined with curry houses like Aladin, where a meal is bound to transport you to the crowded streets of Bangladesh, India, or Pakistan. We in particular liked the lamb curry, which had a nice balance between sweetness and spiciness.
Salt Beef Beigel
This sandwich was created by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe that settled in London’s East End at the turn of the century. As traditional meat tenderizing methods violated kosher law, they instead employed a long, slow-cooking method — salting and simmering — to achieve the tender, flavorful salt beef (also called corned beef) we know today.
Around this same time, the bagel began gaining ground on London’s streets. Round bread with a hollow center has been a part of many cultures, but the bagel as we know it today — the fluffy, boiled-then-baked version — originated in Jewish communities in Poland. Bringing both culinary traditions from back home, London’s new Jewish immigrants populated Brick Lane with bakeries, where they paired their two most popular foods into the now-cult favorite salt beef beigel.
Where to get it: Beigel Bake on Brick Lane is one of few survivors from this era. This 24-hour bakery turns out more than 7,000 bagels per night, with salt beef among its most popular toppings. We assure you: The bagel’s crispy outside and chewy inside, topped with thick slabs of meat and a dab of yellow mustard, is nothing short of life-changing.
First thing’s first: A bacon sandwich in London is not a BLT. Rather than the long, crisp strips of bacon we’re used to, English bacon is cut from the back of the pig, similar to Canadian bacon, but with extra fat surrounding the meat. It is often smoked or cured, and when it comes to this kind of bacon sandwich, it rides solo.
Where to get it: Though St. John Bread and Wine is not old (it opened in 2003), it employs a method of cooking that harkens back to another era — nose-to-tail dining. To make its Rare Breed Bacon Sandwich — one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes — the bacon is soaked in brine for two weeks. Once cooked, the meat is stacked between two slices of buttered, then slightly charred bread, which has a subtle sweetness. Dip it into the house-made ketchup, which contains apple purée, for a twist.