Fish-finger bhorta, anyone? Let’s make a new England, one recipe at a time

Fish-finger bhorta, anyone? Let’s make a new England, one recipe at a time

What comes to mind when you think of English food? Perhaps it’s eccles cake and yorkshire pudding. Hand-raised pies with thick brown crusts and a little translucent jelly under the lid. Maybe it’s baked apples with cinnamon and custard, crumpets with butter, smoked kippers or fish and chips washed down with tea.

But we have to be honest. While some of us will think of English food in terms of affection and nostalgia, most of the world will turn up their noses in disgust. In the rest of Europe, English food is widely seen as unpalatable.

This wasn’t always the case. As Ben Rogers documents in his book Beef and Liberty, French travellers to England in the 18th century marvelled at the quality and the enormous quantities of beef, mutton and beer consumed in these isles. Travellers’ letters document festivities in which entire cows were roasted on open spits, sometimes with a thick pie-like crust, as flour, breadcrumbs and eggs were applied in the final stages. The same letters also speak of smaller joints turned in front of domestic fires by clockwork or, occasionally, on rotating spits driven by dog-wheel. In those days, England was a culinary destination of sorts.

Since then, England has acquired a negative reputation for its cuisine – and not without reason. Investigating the reasons as to why English food lags behind many of its peers, which I did for my podcast, the Full English, took me deep into the country’s history. It turns out our early industrialisation is largely to blame. The late-medieval enclosures, which first appeared after the black death, effectively privatised common land, creating an important source of wealth for the crown as well as the world’s first modern working class.

Slowly, as the agricultural revolution allowed more and more peasants to be released from the land, towns and industry in England started to prosper. The social conditions were laid for the Industrial Revolution, which was supported by the growth of the British empire. While the latter may have brought new ingredients to these isles, the combination of industry and empire undermined England’s domestic peasantry. Why did this matter? Because the English have typically lacked a deep connection to the soil. It’s undeniable that, say, Italian cuisine, with its huge regional variations – from rich tomato sauces in the south to gnocchi with blue cheese and cream in the north – reflects a lived, social connection to the land that we lost a long time ago in England.

A second important point about “English food”, I discovered, is that, unlike many other national cuisines, it’s incredibly hard to define. Take a dish like the fish-finger bhorta. The recipe calls for cooking fish fingers then mashing them together with fried onions, ginger, chilli and mustard. It’s an invention of the grandmother of the writer and journalist Ash Sarkar, and was popularised by Nigella Lawson after Sarkar shared it on Twitter.

Where does this dish fit within the traditional English culinary imagination? It’s made with a bland, processed food that feels, well, distinctly English. But it wasn’t created for a white, English-speaking audience, as the chicken tikka masala was. Instead, it was made by and for immigrants of a once vast empire, seeking a taste of home within the constraints of what was available in postwar English shops. Is Englishness able to accommodate these experiences?

Perhaps it is. Our ideas of Englishness are changing. Research from the thinktank British Future has found that increasing numbers of people, especially youngsters from ethnic minorities, perceive Englishness to be inclusive of those who aren’t white. The research shows that while older generations of immigrants fought for inclusion within the idea of Britishness, their children and grandchildren are today seeking their place within Englishness.

As the pandemic has shown, it’s not just the food of England that’s hard to pin down – so are its political institutions . While important decisions affecting public health have been handled by the regional administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it is the United Kingdom government, based in Whitehall, that has ended up as the de facto government of England. This sense of incoherence plays out in legislation: post-Brexit rules from Westminster that is set to give food growers the right to produce gene-edited crops applies only to England. And it was hardly remarked upon that the UK government’s recent “national” food strategy is also applicable to England alone. As it stands, England has neither any distinct democratic institutions that bear its name nor, indeed, a fixed identity.

These circumstances call for redefining English food, since what we imagine when we think of a national cuisine tells us something about who we think we are. The repertoire of the contemporary English kitchen therefore cannot reflect a frozen image of Tudor feasts – of roasted peacocks, enormous pies and cones of sugar – nor the roast beef of England on the eve of unification with Scotland.

Answering what English food is today requires us to ask, first of all, who gets to define it. That means questioning why restaurant reviews and food journalism pay relatively less attention to, say, a local African-inspired restaurant than the latest pop-up pizzeria. It means understanding poverty and inequality in England as well – since, while everyone is free to eat roast beef at the Ritz, few can afford to do so.

In recommendations meant to form the basis of the government’s food strategy, the independent adviser and restaurateur Henry Dimbleby called for more spending on free school meals, as well as policies to reduce meat and dairy consumption owing to their climate impacts, and proposals to tackle obesity. It is perhaps unsurprising that an imperilled government rejected Dimbleby’s key recommendations. Yet had this debate been framed as the reinvention of the national English diet, the development of the food strategy would not only reflect the reality of devolution but it could make government policymaking less remote from ordinary people as well.

That’s because food offers a way into debates about who we are and who we want to be. The English suffer from a lack of such a dialogue – and where better a place to start one than over a bite to eat?