A case for Sherlock Holmes: Afternoon or high tea – is it really British?

afternoon tea, balti, and fish and chips
What exactly is British cuisine? Just afternoon tea, chicken balti, and fish and chips? Image Credit: Shutterstock

You can’t miss it… the smell of fish n’ chips or for that matter ‘curry’ when you walk through London streets at lunch hour, at least in pre-Covid times. With one out of 11 Britons being an immigrant as per 2018 statistics, that olfactory mix has gotten a bit more eclectic.

So, what exactly is British cuisine? Balti chicken curry, an English fry-up or scones with clotted cream and jam? And is that about the extent of the culinary tradition that this island nation has to offer the world?

Christopher Lester, Executive Chef of Caesars Bluewaters Dubai, strongly disagrees. Find out why…

Chef Christopher Lester, Executive Chef of Caesars Bluewaters Dubai
Chef Christopher Lester, Executive Chef of Caesars Bluewaters Dubai Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal/Gulf News

What is British cuisine today?

A myriad influences have shaped the cuisine and led to its development. From the Romans initially contributing to the base part of the cuisine, one that still forms a part of the modern British diet to the Saxons and Vikings, bringing all their ways of doing things. World War II with its austerity and rationing on what you can have and what was available on the island altered things again, and from those tough times spawned a lot of change in the British diet. We now grow a lot, and our farmers help us in self-sufficiency.

More recently, influences from India and Middle East and Asia as a whole, Africa, America have had a big impact on what is served and how it is served. Versatility has been brought on via interaction with different ethnicities, countries and regions within them. Curry’s one of the most popular dishes, there’s been so many spices coming in, making a difference to what’s available and what’s on offer. The cuisine’s base through the ages evolved, but now as the hub of the world the UK is a mix of British taking in European and cuisines worldwide.

Why are British dishes so easily available in restaurants across the world?

It’s the easy-to-adapt nature. Take the classics – English breakfast, served in most five-star hotels globally, to the classic roast lunch, fish and chips… I grew up in England with our big classic Sunday roasts that were a family affair, and now you have the roast everywhere. Like the chips from the chip shop – a tradition that I like so many passed on to my children as well – we do Brighton fish and chip days on the beach – and that has travelled worldwide.

A traditional Sunday roast
A traditional Sunday roast is the easiest way to comfort-food bliss Image Credit: Shutterstock

Even British desserts such as Eton mess with its simple strawberries and cream – these classic British elements are very easy to fit into other locations globally, making it easier to escalate and incorporate into other cuisines. The roast beef with our Yorkshire pudding, roast potato and vegetables – such a social affair, and one that so many Brits will have fond memories of. These dishes are stable aspects of life you go home to in the UK. They are a part of our heritage.

Afternoon or high tea – is it really British?

All tea meant a long time ago was a snack between lunch and dinner, just sandwiches and a little something sweet for the aristocracy who were in a position to have it. Now it’s a meal period on its own. Afternoon tea was actually something new even until I started cooking in London, coming from a small village in Cotswolds 17 years ago – all it used to be was sandwiches and a bit of cake. It’s changed from traditional cucumber sandwiches and egg mayo to bridge rolls and smoked salmon, and so many different bite-sized treats. From world-famous afternoon teas at the Harrods and the Savoy, tea became massive over the years.

Dubai is a great example of this, of course – there’s a massive following for afternoon tea here. In five-star hotels here you can now get an Asian style afternoon tea, a designer style one… the concept doesn’t change with its savoury sweet elements, and its traditional scones, be it in Paris to Hong Kong to New York. It’s an experience in its own right.

Critics feel British food is a bit limited…

I disagree – British food is diverse, from its Cornish pastries and scones to its stews and roasts. Its selection and variety is as limited as the individual trying it. Think one-off cheeses, sausage of every variety, cured meats, smoked salmon from different regions, Arbroath Smokie (a type of smoked haddock), and the abundance of seafood from oysters to lobsters as we’re surrounded by the sea. Plus so many ways of cooking up different marinades, our chicken, lamb and beef is some of best in the world – our core ingredients are wonderful. It’s as limited as you want to make it. I could spend my life eating new dishes from different parts of England, and they would still blow me away.

Eton Mess
Anything but a mess, Eton Mess’s simple combination of strawberries and cream makes it one pretty dessert and a pure joy to eat Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal/Gulf News

How has UK’s palate evolved?

Cuisine has gone ballistic, and every month in London there seems to be a new restaurant at every corner, and this accessibility is amazing. From the best burger to the best pizza, noodle bar, or the Vietnamese bao bun trend, or Asian fusion, the British palate is so versatile. When I was growing up, we had a steakhouse and an Italian where we’d have some pizza and a bowl of Bolognese, but that was it.

From sushi to bao, so much has changed and been introduced over the decades, and there’s always something new coming from somewhere. The food’s constantly revolving – in England you have sweet and sour chicken, in China you look for sweet and sour chicken, and they’ll think you’re crazy. In England there’s the korma curry but in India there’s no such thing – it’s got coconut and is a little sweet, so it has elements that are for a Western palate rather than Asian. Same for Chinese food – the different flavour profiles have been Westernised. We’ve inherited the dishes, we’ve tweaked the dishes.

Yorkshire pudding
Crisp and fluffy and golden brown, roast dinners are never complete without Yorkshire puddings Image Credit: Shutterstock

As for our British dishes – they’ve been revived and told in a new way. Think Yorkshire pudding with sausages, with onion gravy. There’s no overcomplicated flavour profiles, all that’s key are the ingredients. I believe you can redefine the classics, but you should always stick to your roots.

What would you say are the 5 must-eats of British cuisine?

An English fry-up
However bad for your heart it might be, nothing quite beats a full English breakfast on a weekend morning Image Credit: Shutterstock

Definitely a classic fry-up English breakfast. Then of course a roast dinner, some fish and chips, Bakewell tart and Chelsea bun with its doughy brilliance and currants. I’d have to add a sixth – tea of course!

Paper bag full of fish chips and lots of vinegar, that’s comfort food – Michelin-starred food is great but would I cook that at home? No. I’d cook dishes that are more wholesome, and so British.