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UK Cooking Oddities

March 24, 2015

I recently spent 6 weeks living in the UK and traveling around Europe. It was too much fun and makes coming back to reality tough. Normally when traveling abroad I’m not doing any cooking so I just enjoy the local cuisine and take notes on what dishes I like and try to replicated them when I get home. Now, I was cooking in a very minimally stocked kitchen, shopping for groceries in stores I’m not use to (but at least in English, kind of), and using units crossing both ends of the Metric and Imperial System (which is also known as British Imperial). Why a system that is called “British Imperial” isn’t solely used in the country of Great Britain, I have no idea? It is highly frustrating mix of units and I’m thankful I’m good at math and know my unit conversions because for most others I’m sure it’s a huge pain in the butt.

For example, they use miles and miles per hour for driving when the rest of Europe is kilometers and kilometers per hour. A person’s body weight would be stated in Stones huh? (1 stone = 14 pounds). But, they use Degrees C instead of F. Also, almost all food is sold by weight, even if it’s liquid like a can of soup, it’s sold by weight not volume. And of course that weight is in grams (not pounds or stones or ounces). So this makes cooking by American recipes more difficult when you need 14 oz of sauce and you have 400 grams. The engineer in me wishes every product had a density posted on it so I could do the math.

If you follow any British recipes they are all by weight so I suppose that helps that there products are sold by weight. However, in our British kitchen we had no scale so, again, I’m glad I am good at math and would do a lot of fractions. I need 50g of broth and the can is 400g so I use 1/8th of the can. As you can imagine it took me a little longer to cook things there.

I did enjoy the change and challenge and tried my pallet with the local cuisine, but it was not much to my liking. There was lots of fried food (French fries with everything) and lots of meat. Menus had pretty limited options and almost always consist of: steak, duck, pork, fish & chips, and one veggie option which most commonly seemed to be some sort of risotto. I did not really enjoy the menu selection. Oh and pies, no not sweet pies, meat pies. The food had a very Midwest feel to it. Every time I ordered a “salad” I got something that wasn’t even green. Desserts or “puddings” weren’t all that great either. It always seemed like they were missing something or like their butter or sugar was just off.

Here are some other things I noted, please excuse the totally random order:

• Molasses is called treacle. Jim found this out the hard way.

• Zucchini are called courgettes. Apparently zucchini is the Italian word and courgette is the French word.

• It took me weeks to find coconut flakes. Turns out they call it “desiccated coconut” and it comes in a box instead of a bag.

• I wanted to buy some powdered drink mix like Crystal Light. I had no idea what to ask a clerk for so I didn’t. I eventually found some highly concentrated drink drops you could add to water so that sufficed. This made me think back to the days of Kool-aid.  What ever happened to that?  Too much sugar I presume…

• They have a plethora of brown sugar options: Turbinado (mild), Muscovado (very dark brown), Demerara (light brown), Rapadura… wow, a whole new world. Light and dark refer to the varying levels of molasses it contains. Darker = more molasses

• The selection of cheese, nuts, and dried fruit was amazing! I have several recipes that call for hazelnuts which are always hard to find in the US, but no problem in the UK.

• Sultanas were plentiful which is a dried white seedless grape. I’m not a fan of raisins, but I did like Sultanas.

• Chicken was so much more tender and tastier there than what we get in Seattle. They must be really happy chickens:)

• Much to Jim’s disappointment cookies don’t really exist. They have biscuits instead. No, not doughy bread-like biscuits. Think of something crunchy like a Nilla Wafer, but more oaty. One of Jim’s co-worker who is British informed us the best biscuit in the land is the Chocolate Hobnobs (btw, an oven is called a hob). So we ate some of those. Brits like crispy biscuits so they can dunk them in their tea. Apparently they never grew out of that dunking your Oreos in milk phase when they were kids…

• I tried to make cookies while I was there, Jim’s favorite my chocolate orange drop cookies and this opened my eyes to why they have biscuits. First off I needed vegetable shortening aka Crisco. That does not exist in the UK, but they have ample supply of animal lard… I did some research and thanks to uk-yankee.com (ha!) I discovered there are some alternatives that you could only find at a big Tesco store. They were Trex and Flora White. I went with Trex and my cookies came out like…biscuits! Crunchy not soft at all. This may have something to do with the crappy oven, but I thought it was comical all Jim wanted was cookies and here I made him biscuits.

• Maybe that missing ingredient in all their desserts is due to the fact that high fructose corn syrup is quasi-banned in Europe. In the UK production is very limited so it’s not found in most products.

• They use honey on lots of dishes. I approved!

• Their beer sucks. It’s cask beer which is not carbonated and typically served at room temperature. Which, during the middle of winter isn’t so bad to not drink an ice cold beer, but it was not to my liking. They had lots of cider options and you think with being so close to France their wine would be good…nope! We did travel to the Czech Republic and Belgium which are both known for beer and made up for our lost consumption there.

• When I complained to my brother about the beer he says “they brew tea not beer Hid”. Very true. Their tea selection was amazing and delicious. Perfect for this non-coffee drinker. I fit more in there than I do at home in my coffee crazy city of Seattle.

• I commonly saw “Cream Tea” on menus. Apparently it’s a more formal tea affair for afternoon tea with a light meal of scones, jam, and clotted cream (the cream and jam put on the scone). The tea is served with milk.

• Eggs in the grocery store are not refrigerated. They are in the baking aisle.

• Quinoa took me weeks to find. It was placed with the nuts/seeds.

• Their red bell peppers were delicious! I could eat them like apples. However, bell peppers were the only fresh peppers I could find. No jalepenos, poblanos, seranos, ect. Could this be why their food is so bland?! The British friend of Jim’s told us they have spicy peppers dried in the spice aisle, but I didn’t find them.

• Their peanut butter sucks. Nick, you would die…

• While most dinners out were “eh” we did go to a recommended Indian restaurant for my birthday. It was superb and probably one of the best meals I’ve ever had. The chicken so tender and moist it was like butter. Everything had amazing flavor and great services something Seattle is terrible at.

• Some common odd menu sides were “Mushy Peas” it is exactly what you think it is and “Bubbles and Squeak” which no, isn’t some sort of cartoon animal duo but a fried combination of left-over vegetables.

• Bangers and mash: sausage and mash potatoes.

• Spotted dick: uh…not what you think.  It’s cylindrical pudding with dried fruit served with custard.

• Hot crossed buns: Spiced sweet bun made with raisins marked with a cross on top and historically eaten on Good Friday which is why they were more common around the time I was there.

• Yorkshire pudding: Most commonly a dessert but can be served with roast and potatoes and consists of milk, flour, and eggs.

• Millionaire shortbread: Shortbread crust with a layer of caramel and chocolate on top of that. This is one I might try my hand at making at home.

• I happened to be in the UK on Fat Tuesday or “Pancake Day” in the UK. I saw a flier for a Pancake Race with BYOP (bring your own pan & pancake). The race consisted of running around the minster while flipping your pancake in your pan. Naturally I participated. I made a pancake and walked into town with pan in hand. I found it interesting how my American style pancake was much fatter and smaller diameter than everyone else’s. Think of their pancakes to be more crepe-like.  I did not win.  I will stick to bike racing…

Pancake Day Race!

• One brilliant thing the Brits had were grocery carts that had wheels that swiveled in all directions. Think of being able to move your cart completely to the left or right without having to move forward. Although the down side of this is that I think it caused people to have their carts all over the aisle. But, I’m not convinced this was caused by high functioning wheel range of motion but maybe the fact that the Brits in general seem quite oblivious of their surroundings.

• Another grocery store innovation was hand-held scanners. You’d grab one at the door and scan all the items you put in your cart. Then you had a quick checkout counter you could go to and they’d take your scanner, you’d pay that amount and you were off. Honesty system works here…maybe wouldn’t work so well in the US.

• A couple of times on the back of boxes when I was reading cooking instructions they would say to use gas mark no. 5 or ect. I’ve never heard of that before and certainly had no frame of reference for how hot that is. Apparently it’s a temperature scale on gas ovens in the UK. The equation goes like this. Gas mark 1 = 275 degrees F. Increase each gas mark by one is an increase of 25 degrees F.  Therefore Gas Mark 3 = 325 degrees F. Funny how it’s Fahrenheit based, but they use Celsius…

• And I had to laugh at a package of Wild Rice I bought (which was extremely hard to find, btw). It’s directions went something like this: bring water to a boil and simmer for 45 minutes. OR their “Quick Cooking Approach” was: soak wild rice in water for 4 hours or overnight and boil for 20 min. hahaha, well if you were reading the package in time to cook it you were outta luck for the “Quick Cooking Approach”.

Jim lived there far longer than my stay so I’m sure there are other things of note. I had a great time exploring and figuring out their system. I can’t imagine if I was submerged into a cuisine-rich place like Italy for that long. I’d probably never leave!

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