British Names for Popular Foods - You Call that What?!

Deciphering British Food-Speak

Man holding giant prizewinning marrow in garden
Windsor & Wiehahn / Getty Images

Why would you want to know the British word for zucchini?

Well, imagine you've just settled in for a posh restaurant meal and ordered a dish of exotic sounding courgettes? How disappointing then to be served up a plate of something you had to be bribed to eat as a child.  You may encounter strange names in Britain for perfectly ordinary things you already eat at home.

Some of the things British people eat take foreign visitors by surprise and are definitely acquired tastes.

Chip butties (sandwiches made of french fries), beans on toast and pineapple or canned corn on pizza are just a few. Some people also enjoy crisp butties - US style potato chips between slices of buttered white bread with brown sauce.

But, most of the time, the ordinary things British people eat are not that different from what North Americans cook up regularly all the time. They're just traveling under assumed names.

So, in the interests of helping you cross the American/English language barrier to find the foods you already know and like, to discover the marrow that vegetarians can eat and pickles that aren't cucumbers, We've put together this handy guide.

Eat Your Veggies

  • Aubergine is eggplant. When vegetables returned to the British table after the end of rationing in the 1950s (if it wasn't a potato, an onion or a carrot, it wasn't available), they came from the Continent, carrying with them their French names. Ironically, it was the British who brought this vegetable to western Europe from India, where it is called brinjal (more about that later). The common American name, eggplant, dates from the 18th century because the fruits of the plant then grown in Europe were small, yellow or tan colored and looked like goose eggs.
  • Beetroot is just another way of talking about beets. Oddly, they are often sold at supermarkets already boiled, in soggy plastic bags. It's possible they've held on to the word root because there was a time when beet greens (a bit like bitter spinach) were more commonly available. But that's just my guess.
  • Courgette crossed the English Channel to Britain from France but first came to America from Italy which is why Americans call it zucchini. Ironically, it originated in South America, but we have no idea what the Aztecs called it. 
  • Marrow is not only the stuff that comes out of the middle of meat bones, it is also a large, bland vegetable related to zucchini - it looks a bit like zucchini on steroids (which is actually kind of what it is). Sometimes, in the interests of accuracy, it can be called vegetable marrow. It's usually stuffed with some kind of savory filling to give it character.
  • Squash is not a vegetable in the UK but a sugary, fruity-flavored soft drink concentrate, with a small amount of fruit juice in it. It's mixed with water. The vegetable squash that Americans are used to is a relative newcomer to Britain. It's usually called by its varietal name - butternut squash, acorn squash - and sometimes orange fleshed vegetables that would be called squash in the USA are lumped together as pumpkin.

Shortcuts

The British have a habit of dropping words and bits of words from the names of some foods. It can be confusing for North Americans. Egg mayonnaise, for example,  is not mayonnaise made from eggs.

It's hardboiled egg, halved or sometimes sliced, covered in mayonnaise. Cauliflower cheese is cauliflower and cheese. Macaroni cheese is macaroni and cheese, not cheese made of macaroni. Chicken salad is a piece of chicken - a leg or some sliced chicken - with a lettuce and tomato salad on the side. Ditto ham salad. In fact the American dish of chopped ham with mayonnaise and relish is completely unheard of in Britain.

Pudding and Pies

The word dessert does occasionally pop up in people's conversation or on menus, but the sweet course at the end of a meal is almost always called pudding. It's a category that can cover everything from chocolate mousse to fruit salad. The answer to the question, "What's for pudding?" could easily be "Watermelon."

But just to be contrary, puddings are not always sweet and they are not always served for pudding (in other words, dessert).

A savory "pudding" like Yorkshire pudding is a popover served alongside beef or, in Yorkshire, as a first course with onion gravy. Steak and kidney pudding is a traditional main course steamed inside a pastry. Bake it in the pastry and it becomes steak and kidney pie. And black pudding is a sausage made of pig's blood and a few other more appealing ingredients.

Pies on the other hand, are almost never the pudding course and are almost never sweet - with two exceptions - apple pie and mince pies (which are always little, individual tartlets). Other sweet pies are called tarts - lemon tart, Bakewell tart, treacle tart.

Pies that are made to stand on their own in thick crusts are known as raised pies. They're eaten cold, sliced in wedges or served as small individual pies, and made solid with aspic. Melton Mowbray Pork Pies are a prime example. Other meat pies, such as steak and ale pie, have only a top crust - what Americans would call "pot pies." And some of the most famous "pies", Shepherd's Pie (ground lamb), Cottage Pie (ground beef) and Fish Pie (fish and shellfish in a creamy sauce), don't have any pastry crust at all - they're topped with mashed potatoes.

Miscellaneous Surprises

Pickles might be the spears or coins of pickled cucumber that you're used to. But the word is also used to describe vegetable relishes that are similar to chutney but extremely sour or spicy. Brinjal pickle is made from eggplant and Branston pickle, a brand name relish product served with meats or cheeses, is spicy.

And one last word - if you've never tasted English mustard, don't slather it on a sausage like American yellow mustard - unless you want to blow the top of your head off. Made from ground mustard powder, English mustard is very very hot  - so take it easy.