Eating out and western style food, dining etiquette, sauces, dietary differences and dietary requirements.
I wrote this page after spending three weeks in Japan where I was served with some wonderful meals, though often felt a bit clueless about what to expect next and how to go about eating it. At times I felt like I needed an eating instructor to point out what things were and how to deal with the unfamiliar. It made me think that maybe those from other cultures who come to Britain may be a bit baffled about what goes on at the meal table as I was in Japan, so here's an attempt to explain things that may seem a bit puzzling if they are unfamiliar.
In most restaurants with table service there are three courses available. Typically starters and main courses are ordered together, the dessert menu can be requested later to be ordered along with coffee if required.
Starter - A small savoury dish as an appetiser, they are generally ordered individually though sharing-starters, enough for two are often also available, these will be served first and all together. If not all of your party are having a starter then service of the main course for all will follow after the starters have been cleared. If you want everyone to start eating together you could all forego starters or ask for them to be served alongside the main courses.
Main course - These will all arrive at the same time for all diners, allowing for the time it takes the servers to bring them. An inconvenient delay of any of the dishes is considered poor service as it is polite for all diners to begin eating at the same time, made more difficult if some diners are waiting for their dishes to arrive.
Dessert - A sweet dish that is often ordered following the clearing of the main course when the server will return with the menu, or it can be requested if it isn't offered. Coffee is usually ordered at the same time, there may also be alcoholic varieties on offer "Irish coffee" or variants of this.
It is perfectly normal to have all three courses, any two as long as one is a main course or just a main course. Not ordering a main course is very unusual and it would be rude to do so at busy times, occupying a table that could be used by those who do. If you wish to do this, you should ask first before being seated.
Each diner orders their own dish which is served to them on their own plate rather than on a serving dish which is then transferred to their plate. You are of course free to share food with your fellow diners, though the service style makes this more difficult than with Asian style food. If you are dining with people you don't know so well or in formal situations, then assume there will be no sharing of dishes.
Basic dining etiquette
A fork is held in the left hand and knife in the right, the fork is used to hold food still while it is cut by the knife using a gentle sawing motion. Bite sized pieces are then transferred to the mouth with the fork that is still held in the left hand. Europeans do not transfer the fork from one hand to the other, doing so will identify you as American or as someone with less than great table manners.
Food is cut as it eaten, NOT all cut in advance and then eaten in with the fork in the right hand. Holding a large piece of food on the fork and taking smaller bites from it is seen as what children who haven't been taught any better do, not a good impression to give.
If you are pausing while chewing or talking, place the knife and fork separately at each side of the plate entirely on the plate pointing forwards, don't rest your hands on the table with the knife and fork pointed upwards. To signify you have finished eating place the knife and fork together on the plate at an angle of about 45 degrees, the angle is not important, placing them together is, the server will interpret this as a signal you have finished and wish the plate to be cleared.
Plates and bowls are not lifted to the mouth and it is impolite to come too far down to meet your food, use the knife and fork to cut the food into small enough pieces. Soup (not so common these days) is consumed with a spoon from a shallow bowl. Desserts are eaten with a spoon and fork, though sometimes only a spoon may be supplied if it is very soft.
Flat plates make eating with a knife and fork much easier than even a shallow bowl.
Slurping is considered impolite as are other avoidable eating sounds.
There is a range of more detailed eating etiquette that you can learn about if you so wish, though the above is sufficient for you to fit in the great majority of circumstances.
There are of course endless differences between the foods that are eaten in different countries, these are some of the biggest and most immediate ones you may notice.
Bread: This fills the place taken by rice in much of the world, wheat grows in Britain and rice doesn't, so historically it has been a part of the staple diet since prehistoric times. You will encounter it at potentially any meal, from toast at breakfast to an accompaniment at lunch or dinner. It is very commonly found as all manner of the ubiquitous prepared sandwiches for sale and is available in an almost endless variety of shapes and sizes, made with brown or white flour, wheat or rye, containing seeds, malted grains or not, crusty or soft, and sliced or not.
Potatoes: The other carbohydrate staple in Britain. Potatoes in many cooked forms accompany many main meals, "new potatoes" in spring and early summer are often served simply boiled or lightly roasted with butter and/or mint. You will doubtless be familiar with French-fries or chips, but there are so many other ways to cook this versatile vegetable. It is often served cold with mayonnaise as potato salad, especially in summer.
Not eaten so much:
Rice, especially sticky rice. It does feature in some western style dishes and is common at the ever popular Indian and Chinese restaurants that are found even in the smallest towns and larger villages, though for most British people it is not a large part of the normal diet. Where found, the rice will usually be fluffy basmati style or short-grained risotto style rice rather than sticky.
Fish: (other than as fish and chips) is not eaten very extensively in Britain, it comes a poor second to red or white meat as a protein source for many people. There will nearly always be a fish dish on the menu in a restaurants and there are a small number of British fish dishes to try, it is enjoyed here though as a less frequent alternative. A limited range of sushi can be found in supermarkets and restaurants.
Similar but different:
Vegetables: Britain grows a great deal of its own fresh food and increasingly there are efforts to reduce transport miles by eating food that has been grown as locally as possible. All that dependable rain and the long spring and summer days mean that lots of things grow really well here though won't necessarily be the same sort of vegetables that you are used to at home. Imported vegetables are available particularly in large cities, though the local produce will be tastier and cheaper as it was grown locally and probably harvested much more recently.
Fruit: There are some seasonal delights in late spring and summer you should try if you are here at that time as they are amongst the best examples in the world. British strawberries are found everywhere in June and July possibly stretching to August or later, make sure they are British as the imported ones are no-where near as delicious. The traditional way to enjoy them is simply as strawberries and cream which lets the flavour shine through, another simple and favourite way is as "Eton Mess" where the cream is whipped and broken up meringue is added to give extra sweetness and texture.
Apples are another British specialty growing here in greater variety and arguably better quality than any where else in the world, the new crop comes along in late summer and autumn and beats anything that has been artificially held back from maturing in a controlled atmosphere to allow it to be transported thousands of miles. Apples are eaten raw or made into pies and puddings.
At a similar time come Plums which are one of my favourite fruits of all, like apples they grow really well here and in great variety, though the tastiest varieties are difficult to transport. Apples and plums are best bought from the roadside in areas with orchards, if you have a hire car and are driving around in August or September watch out for stalls at the roadside or in lay-bys, also good places to get British strawberries earlier in the year.
Other berries and currants also grow well in Britain, raspberries and blackberries from mid summer and autumn and black, red and white currants are delicious additions to summer puddings and drinks. Wild blackberries can be sampled almost anywhere in the countryside in the season, something I regularly enjoy along with wild plums when walking the dog.
Sauces and Condiments on the table
Nearly all restaurants will have shaker pots of salt and ground white pepper on the table.
More casual eateries (it sounds a little pretentious to call lower priced places restaurants) will often have a bottle of red sauce and a bottle of brown sauce on the table.
Red: Tomato ketchup, very similar to bottled tomato sauces across the world, though the British version may be a little different to what you have at home.
Brown: Something of a British (and Irish) institution, a spicy and somewhat fruity sauce (that flavour you can't quite place is tamarind) that isn't really found elsewhere in this form, though there are other sauces along the same theme, the flavour is similar to Worcester sauce. Add a small puddle at the side of your plate (it's quite thick) about 3-4cm in diameter and dip in savoury things such as sausages, bacon, pork pie and cold meats, also egg, cheese, tomato and chips. It's one of those things that people swear goes perfectly with some food though without universal agreement as to what it's best with. Great on a bacon or sausage sandwich, some like it with a full English breakfast. You can find it in all supermarkets, several brands, the most popular are "HP" (for Houses of Parliament) and "Daddies".
Mustard: Less commonly found. If in a large container it will be mild hot-dog style mustard, if it is called "English mustard" expect chili sauce levels of flavour and use sparingly.
Vegetarians:Increasingly vegetarians are catered for wherever food is served with most restaurants having at least one vegetarian option on the menu. Specifically vegetarian restaurants are not common but can be found in larger towns and cities without too much difficulty. Indian restaurants which are found literally everywhere will often have more extensive vegetarian options than most.
Vegan: Similarly to vegetarians, though many vegetarian choices in restaurants often include dairy (cheese in particular is a big thing in the UK) so it will take a little more investigating. There are more options becoming available all the time with non-specialist restaurants and cafes identifying and adding vegan choices to their menus. You won't be spoilt for choice outside of major population centres but neither should you struggle to find something suitable.
Halal and Kosher: Easy to find in larger towns and cities as are shops that sell halal and kosher products, though you may have to travel a little further to get to them.
Allergies: There is a law that food that contains any of these allergens has to be declared unless it is self evident in the name, e.g. box of eggs, fresh celery, official site here.
This will enable you to identify items on menus, though not necessarily easily find somewhere that serves food that doesn't contain these ingredients.