Featured image: Le Swine
I arrived in Leeds at the end of cold, gloomy January. At first glance, the UK food scene seemed like a weird, lesser-than variety (sorry) of America’s. Subway and no Taco Bell? Sushi that’s not even close to fresh? As a Californian foodie (yes, foodies eat Taco Bell out of desperation), I was a little disappointed the first few weeks I spent in Leeds, and slogged my way through too many dorm food meals, not even venturing to the city center to bother finding better eats. I was certain my stomach was doomed to be upset with me for 6 months.
Then I had an epiphany on a trip to London. I was with a group of fellow Americans that I had just met. The moment our £10 coach rolled into one of the greatest cities in the world with a pretty sweet culinary scene (later I found out, not all the good stuff was expensive), two members of my travel group decided we should find the one and only Chipotle before all else was considered.
I, for some reason, obliged to go on a wild goose chase around the roads off of the Baker Street tube station, in tow of the desperate Californians who just needed a burrito. As we looped around the streets after about 35 minutes, I decided to lag behind with another friend. Why on earth would we waste time trying to find an American fast food chain when we were in this glorious city for the first time, for a limited time, and quite possibly the last time? There were sites to see and cider to drink! We boycotted their venture to explore the city and British food. This was the beginning of a 6 month love affair; what I ended up discovering during my time abroad was more delicious than I imagined. Check out the things the UK does better than the US – your stomach will thank you!
#5: Food Trucks
Although the modern food truck started in the US, it’s picked up in popularity in London. These mobile chefs stand out because they often do one thing and do it extremely well with creative flair. Have you ever had Bunny Chow? Probably not. It’s a South African speciality of hollowed out bread, filled with stews like ginger chicken and bobotie. A food truck by the same name is warming the hearts of Londoners on those ever-often dreary days. What’s more, Mama’s Jerk Station has the Caribbean street food you’ve been missing and The Cheeky Indian throws together unique wraps and burgers. Octopus Curry? You can find that at Vinn Goute. These delicious finds will remind you of the greats in Los Angeles and Portland, and offer something new, completely different, and scrumptious. Plus, food truck culture in London is a bit more consumer friendly. Trucks and stalls often stay in one spot, or you can at least count on them to camp out for a steady period of time, as opposed to chasing down the odd hours and locations of ones in the US. Look up the most popular trucks on Street Feast London, then track potential favorites on Twitter to see which neighborhood will be your next food destination; expect to head to South Bank, Oxford Circus, and Kings-Cross.
#4: Indian Food
An Indian migrant opened the UK’s first curry house in London 200 years ago, then Queen Victoria made it fashionable, and Britain has been reveling in the spicy stuff ever since. But the Indian food scene isn’t limited to curry – the most popular dish is Chicken Tikka Masala, invented in England and an absolute must-try. Other great dishes include Rogan Josh, a lamb dish, Palak Paneer for the vegetarians, and Chaat for the carb-inclined. You’ll want to pick up the cuisine for lunch or dinner, especially after you’ve had a few drinks. Of course, the US has plenty of Indian restaurants you may have tried, but the UK’s version is a full step above, and certainly more available. No doubt you’ll see the trusted chain Masala Zone to stop into, but definitely check out the food trucks and hole-in-the-wall varieties. Savory, soul-soothing meals await you.
Richer, smoother, fluffier. This perfectly describes the one-upped chocolate in the UK, beating that of the US without question. They use more fat and West African cocoa, with less sugar to produce higher quality chocolate, coming in all of your favorite forms. Pick up all kinds of Cadbury delights when you need a fix – Eggs, Buttons, Flake, and Crunchie will be calling your name. Or my personal favorites, the light but decadent Nestle Aero and hazelnut-y Kinder Bueno. Take advantage while you can, since many British chocolates are banned in the US (Thanks a lot, Hershey’s). Or do what I did: sucker your British friend into sending you a case of Flakes to feast on when you return home. Your old favorites will seem like sad, chalky sugarbombs in comparison.
#2: Ale, Cider, and More
I know what you’re thinking – this is a wide ground to cover. But the Brits do drink quite differently than us. First of all, more frequently (drink responsibly!) and secondly, they tend to lean more towards ale (that’s room temperature) and cider. Make sure to have a pint of Guinness, Strongbow, and Tetley’s – or try the popular Aussie brew, Foster’s. Word to the wise: Don’t order Stella here. People will look at you sideways due to its bad rap! If you’re looking for something a bit stronger, whiskey is a local choice and if it’s summertime, you’ll be sipping on Pimms cups like there’s no tomorrow. (It’s like sangria, but even tastier!) Pick your favorite poison at your host uni’s union and revel in the UK’s deliciously raucous pub culture.
This one won’t be a surprise to anyone, but I was pretty enamored with the whole idea of having tea with everything, going out solely to enjoy a cup, and perusing through the lovely tea shops pretty much everywhere. Take the chance to participate in this habit so embedded in a Brit’s everyday life, by stopping into any tea shop to slowly sip on a proper cuppa, and munch on tea sandwiches, scones and clotted cream. Try the traditional black variety, but also taste test their greens, whites, oolongs, and others. There’s something incredibly relaxing and classy about engaging in high tea time thanks to delicate china, strong brews, and decadent accompaniments. You’ll want to take this habit back home with you!
There’s no point in trying to match the diet you had back home perfectly – you should be adventurous in all aspects of your time abroad! Each country, even ones that seem closely related to the US, has dishes you’ve never heard of and drinks you’ll wonder why you’ve never devoured before. (I’m looking at you, Pimms.)
If you’re studying abroad in the UK, it could be puzzling to know what to expect besides fish, chips, and booze. But I promise there are satiating delights just ahead of you!