I am Italian, so I have always associated eating with home cooking, the family gathering around the table, talking, laughing , wonderful, rich smells and the odd raised glass of wine. When friends come to stay, we go to the local restaurant and spend hours catching up over plates of delicious pasta, local dishes cooked to order, mountains of seasonal salad and Italian gelato – famous the world over. Sick children are fussed and presented with bowls of home-made soup; sick adults can ask for anything they fancy to be whipped up by granny in her kitchen and brought over in a pot swaddled in tea towels, to keep in the heat. Food is love, celebration, togetherness… But, my friends, beware! The same is not true of the UK!
There is no siesta in Britain, no little nap encouraged by a full lunchtime stomach and the warmth of the sun. No, the best you can hope for is to sprint (often through the rain) for a sandwich or a so-called supermarket Meal Deal . This is not actually a meal at all, but a sandwich, soft drink and tiny pouch of grapes and apple slices – the lunch of every office worker, professional and student from Edinburgh to Brighton. Food is eaten on the run, whether you are grabbing a snack in a student cafeteria, Prêt a Manger or Greggs. Disposable cups and paper bags have replaced restaurant tables, as everyone hurries, one eye on the clock, the other stuffing a tuna and sweetcorn on granary bread into their panting mouths. Unless you are a socialite, businessman or rich and bored, there is no such thing as doing lunch. The entire meal has been killed off, murdered by fast food, work pressures and the craze not to put on weight.
So, no lunch. What about dinner, I hear you ask? Well, a brief trip around a UK supermarket will show you that ready meals, for one or two, are the most popular items on the shelves. Supermarkets like Marks and Spencer and Waitrose head the queue with their rows upon rows of Mexican, Japanese, Chinese and, yes, Italian dishes, all microwave ready in three minutes. Most Marks and Spencer stores have no fresh fish or meat counters, just polystyrene trays with pre-cut, pre-stuffed and pre-prepared chicken and turkey, minced beef and cod in batter, with an accompanying slab of lemon and a sachet of sauce. If you want to buy heart, kidneys, liver, a ham bone, sardines, a whole trout you will have to go to a large Sainsbury’s or Morrison’s, where, tucked at the back, you will find fresh(ish) fish laying on pieces of ice and larger joints of meat. The high street butcher and fishmonger are long gone, and the high street itself is collapsing under pressure from online shopping, Amazon and business rates.
So, you wail, what if I don’t want everything ready-prepared, full of unknown fats and preservatives. What if I want to actually cook?
Well, in that case, your best bet is to go to your local market, which may open every day or a few times a week, and buy the quantities you want . Markets are great. Everything is fresh , cheaper than in supermarkets and corner shops, and at the end of the day the traders try to sell off all their stock, so the 50p avocado becomes four for a pound and the sourdough goes down by 50 per cent as the stall is being put away. Otherwise, you are sure to find a Turkish shop in your area, marked out by the huge selection of fruit and vegetables displayed outside, the bunches of coriander and citrus fruit from Cyprus, or an Asian or Middle Eastern grocery, where you can get spices, flat bread and wonderful herbs and vegetables.
If you are going to use a supermarket, then, in descending order, the most expensive ones are probably Marks, Waitrose, Co-Op, Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s, Asda,Lidl and Aldi. The last two are German retailers and have been expanding across the UK over the past five years, so you are never far from a Lidl, whose bread and pastries are fantastic, but who don’t really sell a huge range of goods.
Fast food is fast food wherever you may be in Europe, and while burger bars and pizza huts are gradually being overshadowed by coal-grilled kebab shops and ramen bars, chicken remains the king in this area. It’s cheap, usually very greasy and unlikely to be free range or cruelty free. Fish and chips is a better option, though declining stock in the North Sea means that traditional fish like haddock and cod are being overtaken by hake, lemon sole and less well known fish, in an attempt to protect the UK’s native residents.
Take-aways and delivery services are very popular in the UK, and you will have no problem sending for Just Eat or Deliveroo meals, but in order to get the most out of them, you should try the restaurants first. There’s no point waiting for 45 minutes for your Deliveroo driver to turn up, only to discover that the food is awful. Read online reviews as if they were the Bible, ask around and only then hit that phone button. My local and very small Bulgarian restaurant is not signed up with delivery services, but they are happy to bike round a bowl of mishmash and Smolensk potatoes if I ring and request them, so if you discover a local restaurant you like, find out if they are prepared to drop a meal off to you. It’s always worth asking!
You will be amazed by the number of cuisines on offer in the UK: Mongolian, Peruvian, Venezuelan, Jamaican, Trinidadian, Russian….the whole world is represented here these days. Twenty years ago, Indian and Chinese restaurants were the only well-known options – and very many continue to prosper – but now, whatever you might want to try, you are sure to find it. The UK has nearly 6 million vegetarians and vegans , and this number is growing all the time, so if you are a non-meat eater, the choice is fantastic and every shop ,restaurant, cafe,foodie bar and coffee shop will offer brilliant vegetarian options. Gluten-free foods are widely available and every packaged food has to contain a full breakdown of ingredients, additives and calorie value, so dieters can hit their targets with ease. And people read the labels – honestly, I often come across rows of people peering at labels and blocking the aisles as they try to decide between items. It’s great. It’s responsible and you will find yourself joining in.
So, while you are studying in the UK, eat drink and be merry – and enjoy the many foods you will find…
Eleonora, University of Westminster