I believe that one of the best ways to learn about another culture is through its food. A nation’s cuisine can grant you access to its history, identity, and peoples. Thus when I came to London, one of my first wishes was to indulge in all of the tastes and flavors that makes this city unique.
On my second day abroad, I found myself at one of the many pubs dotted throughout the city and ordered a hefty plate of battered cod, chips (American French Fries), and green peas. Along with an array of rich flavors and a satisfied appetite, this meal of fish and chips introduced me to British pub culture.
Though fitted with flat screen televisions and other modern comforts, as I looked upon the dark wood high-top tables, leather booths, and the many alcoves fitted with intimate seating, I got the sense that in the British pub nothing much changes. I had to go up to the bar and order my food, as it has been done for years. As I dived into the buttery crust of my cod, I marveled at the numbers of suit-clad men that filed into the pub during their lunch hour and saw firsthand the unity that a pint and a bit of sport has brought over the generations. I watched as families, couples, and students milled in and out and realized that the pub was a common space where everyone could seek refuge, have a meal, and enjoy a moment of English tradition even as the world zooms forward outside.
My next culinary dive gave me a taste of the diversity that colors London life. After learning in my first few days that Chicken Tikka Masala had recently been named the national dish of England, I was puzzled but not totally surprise. This dish seemed to be everywhere in the city. Chicken Tikka was a part of my dining hall’s rotating menu, it was in the frozen food aisle at the local grocery store, and even on the menus of the pubs that surrounded my campus. So I quickly found myself an Indian restaurant where I could try this dish and uncover the mystery behind its popularity in the U.K.
After I savored the rich buttery flavor of Chicken Tikka, I understood why everyone loved it so much. Even more so, as I sat in the restaurant indulging in the rich flavors of England’s unconventional national dish, I witnessed something that paralleled what I saw in the pub during my first week. I saw Londoners from all walks of life, of all races, and creeds milling into and out of the restaurant. While some sat to eat and engage in conversation, others got their food for takeaway (“to go” in American lingo). There were some people who came alone and others with friends. Though some patrons appeared to be new, others were obvious regulars.
Thus as I finished my meal, I came to the realization that like the pub this restaurant and more importantly its cuisine served as a point of unity for Londoners, forming a new English tradition. Chicken Tikka Masala was exemplary of the diversity that was core to London, and how everyone who came to this island brought a little something new with them that added to the colorful tapestry that was this city.
These two dips into London’s eclectic food scene launched my journey into the Philippine, Korean, Italian, German and many other flavors and cultures that makes this city so unique. Through food I was able to better understand London and realize the ways in which the U.K. as a whole, though having had a great impact on so many countries and regions through imperialism and colonialism during its years of empire, has also been undeniably influenced by the peoples from all corners of the world that now call it home. By sampling London’s international menu I was able to experience its international culture, for with a full stomach came a deeper understanding of the city I am now calling home.
Alicia Hamilton is a History major at Harvard University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at University College London in the fall of 2016. She was an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-to-Study Program.