From jellied eels to afternoon tea: 5 London foods and where to find them

Sep 9, 2020

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We previously brought you a guide to traditional British foods and where they hail from — from Bakewell tarts to Yorkshire puddings — but London itself has its own subculture of “typical” fare unique to the capital. You can get most of these dishes all over the U.K. of course, but London seems to do them especially well.

Some of the items on this list may seem a bit revolting (jellied eel, anyone?) but if you want to pass as a true Londoner and impress people back home, try and fit them all into your visit.

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1. Pie, mash and eels

Shops selling these East End staples used to be the hub of the community. Pie and mash are filling, cheap and was (and is) a Cockney favourite (you’re a legitimate Cockney if you’re born within the sound of the Bow Bells). In Victorian times, the working classes tended to live in the east and south-east of London as the poorer air quality made it cheaper — plus it was closer to the docklands, where many worked. And pie and mash was a meal that wouldn’t get spoiled by grubby hands due to its thick pastry.

As for eels, traditionally they were eaten because they were the only form of seafood that could survive the heavily polluted Thames — yum. They are eaten cold after being chopped and boiled in a spiced stock. Not for everyone, granted.

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Close up of a plate of traditional British meat pie with liquor (parsley based sauce), mashed potato and jellied eel
(Photo by Sergio Amiti/Getty Images)

Some pie, mash and eel joints have been open for more than a century and many are family-run. Traditional pie fillings include everything from steak and kidney to mutton to mince, with a massive dollop of mash, of course. I recommend paying a visit to M.Manze in Bermondsey. It’s been in operation since 1902 and is one of the oldest pie and eel shops in the capital. Pie, mash, eel and liquor (parsley and water sauce) — perfect!

2. Afternoon tea

The British tradition of afternoon tea couldn’t be any more different from pie and mash. It began around 1840 and was the invention of Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, as a “snack” at about 4 p.m. to break up the wait between lunch and supper. Back then, it was a relatively light affair but it has evolved into a meal in itself. Typically, you’re served finger sandwiches, cakes, pastries and scones with jam and clotted cream on a tiered stand, accompanied by tea and sometimes cocktails and Champagne. Though afternoon tea is said to have originated at her home in Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire, it was soon picked up by the upper classes as a social thing to do in London.

JW Grosvenor House
(Photo courtesy of JW Grosvenor House)

You can have afternoon tea all over the capital, but in my opinion, it should be enjoyed at a posh hotel in Piccadilly or Mayfair. So think The Ritz, Claridge’s or The Dorchester.  Book ahead and don your finest — many high-end London hotels have a strict dress code.

3. Curry

Though curry originated in the Indian subcontinent, the U.K. has its own take on it. In fact, certain dishes such as chicken tikka masala are said to have been created here and indeed, a lot of “British curry” dishes bear little resemblance to authentic Indian food. Nevertheless, going for a curry is quite a British tradition and London is home to some fantastic Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants. Many can be found on Brick Lane or Whitechapel in east London.

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Brick Lane. (Photo by S. M. Swenson / Contributor/Getty Images)
Brick Lane. (Photo by S. M. Swenson/Contributor/Getty Images)

Brick Lane houses scores of places to get a curry — it’s best not to really have a plan and just pick one that tickles your fancy once you’re there. Many will offer deals and staff will try and entice you in. A good rule of thumb — like with any restaurant — judge its merit on how busy it is. The whole experience will feature popadoms and chutney, naan bread and mild curries like korma to blow-your-head off ones like a vindaloo. Brick Lane also has some cool bars as well as lots of vintage shops and street art. We recommend trying Tayyabs in Whitechapel. Its Peshwari naan is delicious and it’s BYO, too. You can’t book, so get there early.

4. Full English fry up

If you read our previous article about British food, you’ll see a theme — our specialities tend to be nice and hearty. Thank our rubbish weather. So naturally, we need a 1,000-calorie breakfast featuring bread, potatoes, eggs and various types of meat. A Full English or cooked breakfast or a fry up — call it what you like — is a great way to start the day and a typically London place to enjoy it is at a “greasy spoon” cafe.

(Photo by nicolamargaret/Getty Images)

Greasy spoons are “small, cheap eateries” known for fried food, Formica tables and being somewhere you can just rock up to straight out of bed if you wish. There’s no airs or graces and there’s nothing better than turning up with the Sunday papers for a fry up (fried eggs, bacon, sausage, black pudding, fried bread, tomatoes, mushrooms and a hash brown) and mugs of strong tea to recover from the night before. Greasy spoons are easy to find (and smell) all over London, but I recommend Regency Cafe near Westminster. It first opened in 1946 and has been in various films such as “Layer Cake” and “Rocketman”. Its interiors are Art Deco and Timeout has called it “stodgetastic”.

5. Sunday roast

Of course, a Sunday roast isn’t just a London thing, but it’s quite a traditional outing in the capital with a big group of friends or family and venues get very competitive about who does the best Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes and gravy. Read our favourite Sunday roasts guide here. It’s eaten on a Sunday because as far back as the 1700s, it was the meal for after church. Another theory is that it was served to serfs in medieval times as a reward for working for six days. Either way, it’s very tasty.

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(Photo by Oscar Wong/Getty Images)
(Photo by Oscar Wong/Getty Images)

Purists will argue that a Yorkshire pudding should only be served with beef, but most places will give you one anyway — the bigger and fluffier, the better. It’s hard to decide a top spot in London for this feast but I must recommend The Ship in Wandsworth, west London. Both the cauliflower cheese and Yorkies are some of the best I’ve ever had.

Bottom line

London has some of the best restaurants in the world — though I may be a bit biased — and you can eat cuisine from all over the globe. That’s one of the things that makes our capital so exciting. However, any visitor should try and sample the foods that are unique to London, as well as the U.K., for a truly authentic experience. And you never know, jellied eels might be just what you were missing in your life!

Featured photo by Loop Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

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