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Well it’s hard to say really. Like many stereotypes, there’s elements of truth to that, but then I’m not sure how true it is in the present day.
For one thing, putting asides dishes that are considered traditionally British, the reality is that as an English person living in England, my experience with food is far from lousy. In fact, I’d probably prefer to live here rather than anywhere else just because of the food. We have food from every corner of the planet available to us, and in some cases it can be exceptional and not easy to find in other countries. Take for example Indian food. Indian food is the most popular food in our country (curry is our national dish), and we have easily some of the best Indian restaurants outside of India. I’ve eaten some of the most amazing Indian food this way, and I know for a fact that in most other Western countries, including the US, it’s nigh on impossible to get the same quality. I’ve got friends who live in Germany, Sweden, Italy, Australia and France, and all of them say the same thing – when we come to the UK the first thing we want is a good curry.
It’s true though that our culture doesn’t really have the deep routed tradition of excellent cuisine like you’d find in countries like Italy and France though. It’s also true that a lot of British people have pretty bland taste, and actually very few know how to cook. I count myself as an exception to this rule, but it’s only because of exposure to the internet that I started getting better. Before I had access to the internet and started taking cooking more seriously, I didn’t even know why people seasoned food – I thought it was just an optional thing that made food “taste salty” – I had no idea that it brought out the natural flavours in food and was so often the difference between food that tasted bland and food that tasted awesome. Same thing when it came to browning meats – I thought that was to hold in the juices, but the truth is you actually lose a bit of juice during the browning process. Browning meat is for flavour and appearance, but I didn’t know that growing up in the UK.
Many British people are like that and don’t use salt and pepper in their cooking.
You can take some of our more famous traditional British dishes like say a roast chicken dinner or roast beef, and so many British people actually cook it in a really bland way. We had roast beef nearly every weekend when I was a child, but I NEVER looked forward to it – the beef was always totally well done, so basically like eating cardboard, the veg was always overcooked to the point of being like soup, the gravy was shop bought granules which always tasted bland, and the food was never seasoned, so yeah – very bland and nothing to get excited about at all.
However, nowadays I cook roast chicken, and it’s like heaven on Earth. It’s the internet that showed me how to do it though. Take the potatoes – I do something similar to this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=En6EBCmM4zM although I also tend to add more stuff – lots of garlic, salt and pepper but also fresh rosemary and sometimes even some chilli peppers to liven things up a bit.
Take the chicken itself – I tend to cover it a layer of butter usually (got that from Julia Child), then salt and pepper generously, including inside the cavity. I sometimes stick a lemon or some stuffing inside the cavity too. Then truss the chicken and stick into a hot oven at the right temperature. I’ll turn the chicken during cooking so it remains juicy and doesn’t dry out, and the juices that do escape end up going into my home made gravy, which will be created with a combination of those juices and some deglazing with red wine. I’ll possibly add some cream or butter to the gravy towards the end and will check for seasoning.
The veg is usually pretty simple – I tend to steam it (if I’m not roasting it – if I roast it usually I’ll cover the carrots and parsnips with honey + seasoning first). Steaming is good though as it keeps in the flavour of the veg. I make sure I don’t over cook it.
Also, Yorkshire puddings are amazing and I’ll definitely make those with this meal too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AU5VdyYOBSs
Why am I going on about a roast chicken dinner? Because it’s a meal generally associated with the UK that most British people get wrong, but if it’s cooked properly and with care, it can be one of the most delicious meals you’ll ever eat.
I’m hungry now.
So yeah – I’d say the reputation is based on some truthes, but the reality of eating in the UK is quite different to what you’d think, and we certainly don’t just eat the kind of food traditionally associated with the UK like fish and chips and fry ups.