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Could pies be Britain's national dish?

National sentiment is a funny thing. At some level, most of us have a deep need to feel a sense of belonging, to be part of a tribe and to feel some sense of respect for the history of the nation that we feel we ‘belong’ to.

Whilst nationalism and national pride can become a negative, as many historical examples demonstrate, most people would agree that having a strong sense of cultural identity is a good thing that allows us to celebrate what is unique about the place we call home, wherever that is.

It’s no surprise therefore that aspects of daily life feed into this sense of national feeling, with everything from how we talk, how we dress, how we celebrate different events and particularly what we eat all contributing to a sense of cultural identity over time that shapes what we perceive as being specific to our country or culture.

Britain as a country has always undergone massive cultural changes, from Roman invasion to Anglo Saxon rule, the Vikings, the influence of the conquering Normans and latterly our absorbing of other cultures into Britain as a result of the colonial immigration that has taken place, particularly over the last century. Britain’s culture today is very different to that of 100 years ago, which is very different to that of 500 years ago, so we’ve always been a country constantly shifting and changing in cultural influence.

Food is a constant in our lives and those of our ancestors. And in almost every part of the world, certain foods are proudly held up as dishes that in some way reflect the culture in which they are made and eaten.

Sometimes we hear a dish described as a ‘national dish’ of a particular country. But what does this mean? What makes a dish a national dish exactly? Is there even an agreed definition of it? Can a dish ever really claim to be a national dish? What criteria does it need to meet, if any?

A bit of online research suggests the following criteria all contribute to a dish’s permission to be referred to as a national dish.

  1. A staple that has been prepared and eaten on a regular basis throughout a nation’s history.
  2. A dish that contains a particular ingredient produced by a country, or a region of it.
  3. A dish served as part of national festivities, culinary traditions, celebrations or relating to certain religious practises.
  4. A dish that a nation has specifically decided to promote as its national dish. Swiss fondue being a clear example, which was promoted by the Swiss Cheese Union in the 1930s as Switzerland’s national dish.

At the risk of descending into a rabbit hole that may never be got back out of, let’s bravely ask the question.

What is Britain’s national dish?

Another spell of online research later, here’s what looks like the most compelling shortlist.

Wikipedia only lists two foods considered as ‘national dishes of Britain.’ These are fish and chips and chicken tikka masala.

Descending further into the rabbit hole, the individual countries that make up Britain are also listed as having their own national dishes. Scotland’s fondness for Haggis being no surprise, Ireland laying claim to stew and also Ulster fry, Wales has both Welsh Rarebit and cawl listed and England seems to have gone with Roast beef and Yorkshire puddings.

So back to the question of Britain’s national dish. Is it possible (or even necessary) to argue definitively for one dish to be Britain’s national dish?

The two options suggested by Wikipedia both have very interesting histories and more than a little myth around their origins.

Fish and chips seems to have come about during Victorian Britain, when the combination of battered fried fish popular with Spanish and Portuguese Jewish immigrants was combined with deep fried chunks of potato, of which the first reference to the word ‘chip’ being in Charles Dicken’s ‘A tale of two cities.’

What seems to have contributed to fish and chip’s popularity in Britain was the rapid expansion of North Sea trawling combined with the development of the railways, meaning fishing ports could provide large industrial towns and cities with a plentiful supply of quality North Sea fish. The working-class populations couldn’t get enough of the dish, with an estimated 35,000 fish and chip shops in the UK in the 1930s. Today there are less than a quarter of that number in the UK, but fish and chips clearly has a strong case for being Britain’s national dish.

Onto the next listed candidate, which is chicken tikka masala. A much more recent invention, there are various competing theories around how the dish was invented, with the most likely being that it became a toned-down version of Indian curry developed by Bangladeshi chefs in the 1960s, in order to appeal to the more heat sensitive pallet of the average Brit at the time. It’s a mild dish that may have been a good introduction to South Asian flavours that would have been very new to most British people. And given its continued popularity in Britain, it clearly worked!

Robin Cook, Britain’s former foreign secretary, paid homage to the dish in 2001 during a speech celebrating Britain’s diverse culture, describing it as a ‘perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts new external influences.’

It’s hard to argue against this, and given the enduring popularity of Indian cuisine, there’s certainly a place for chicken tikka marsala as a national dish.

We’d also argue for a third contender, and it would be a surprise if you were surprised by our final suggestion for Britain’s national dish, given what we do. It is of course, the humble pie!

We feel strongly that the pie deserves consideration as a national dish, despite the lack of candidacy elsewhere. Here’s our case in brief, your honour.

  1. Pies have been eaten in Britain for centuries, with the first written reference to pies dating back to as early as 1303. Pies have fed people of all social classes over time from peasants working the land to aristocrats serving lavish pies for their posh chums to feast on. They’ve provided exceptional utility in a way no other food has over time.
  2. Pies are referenced in everything from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus to nursery rhymes such as Simple Simon, Sing a song of sixpence and Little Jack Horner, to name just a few. What other food has as many idioms and stories associated with it? To think otherwise is just ‘pie in the sky.’ This demonstrates just how ‘baked in’ to our culture pies really are.
  3. Pies mean something in our lives, and we’ve all got great memories of pies, whether it’s on the football terraces or going round to Granny’s for her special apple pie. Pies are embedded into our national psyche and connect us with special moments in our lives.
  4. Not only have pies been a feature of national cuisine, but different regions of Britain have invented their own pies, some examples being Stargazy pie (Cornwall), Fidget pie (Shropshire), Scotch pies (Scotland) and many more. No food has allowed different regional speciality to shine in the way the pie has.
  5. Anything can be put in a pie (virtually). Pies have given us a way to utilise different ingredients and use up leftovers from other meals. The famous Woolton pie being a notable example which was developed as a way of using up cheap vegetables during rationing in World War 2. Pies have allowed cooks to invent new ideas and recipes and to showcase other delicious ingredients such as meats, vegetables, herbs and spices. Pies are the ultimate way to show off other ingredients and get the most from them.


At Yorkshire Handmade Pies, we aim to stay true to all these ideas, using the best ingredients we can find and keeping the pie going as a dish in Britain for what will hopefully be many more centuries. The pie has so much to offer us as a food and has been a faithful culinary servant of Britain. It deserves our respect.

We think it has a well-deserved place as a national dish of Britain. Perhaps even ‘the’ national dish of Britain.

Either way, what’s clear is that we are lucky in Britain to have such a rich and diverse food history which is both fascinating and delicious!