Iconic Cuisines We Need to Embrace More in the UK

The UK has long been a melting pot of cultures and cuisines from all corners of the globe. However, for whatever reason, some foods and drinks have failed to take off in a serious manner on these shores, despite being wildly popular elsewhere.

True, for the most part, we are spoiled for choice when it comes to dining options in the UK. Within five minutes of my house, I can take in a Tonkatsu toast and bubble tea at a Hong Kong-inspired cafe, then follow that up with some lamb shawarma just a few doors down before stocking up on bagels at my local Jewish deli, finally finishing up with some Italian desserts from the bakery round the corner. Could even try and fit in some Latin American BBQ if I’m feeling particularly peckish.

However, this abundance of choice makes it all the more puzzling as to why the UK doesn’t really offer some extremely well-known (and delicious) cuisines.

It’s not a fair comparison, but on a recent trip to Los Angeles, I spent a week devouring the finest Mexican food I’ve ever had. Tacos, tortas, tostadas, sopes, breakfast burritos and chilaques. All washed down with incredible horchata or agua frescas. And yes – given that LA was literally part of Mexico once upon a time and has almost two million Mexican people residing there, it’s no surprise that their Mexican cuisine is as sublime as it is plentiful.

Yet with Mexican food being so popular in the UK, why are there not more top-notch taquerias and taco trucks across our country? Why must we settle for so many questionable, straight-from-the-packet flour tortillas, bland salsas and strangely flavoured guacamole? Why is al pastor not more commonplace among the Mexican offerings we find over here?

In general, it feels as though food from across Latin America has yet to find a mainstream place in UK cuisine. This is not to say, by the way, that there are not top-quality Latin-American dishes being served in London or Manchester or Liverpool. But with over 250,000 Latin Americans now living in the UK, it is shocking that this has not translated into a more substantial scene!

To put it into context, according to the office for National Statistics, there were 280,000 Italian-born people living in the UK in 2021. But with a population of only a few thousand more, there are more Italian restaurants, gelaterias and pizzerias than we know what to do with.

People may point to the numerous chain restaurants and ‘cantina’ style burrito joints that have popped up over the past decade, but many of these are mere Tex-Mex simulacra and don’t scratch the itch for authentic Mexican. Where’s the lingua, the chicharrón and the tripas? Where’s the horchata and endless mezcal options? That said, the emergence of birria over the last couple of years does provide hope, so let’s see how things progress from there.

Similarly to the Latin phenomenon, the rise of ramen joints has been most welcomed over the last 10 years, with UK indie slurp shops breaking forth from the once Wagamama-dominated scene. Combined with a solid sushi offering, it would be accurate to say that we do pretty well for Japanese cuisine in the UK. But still…

Where are our yakitori joints? Why must we look on enviously as Anthony Bourdain and David Chang and Phil Rosenthal wolf down endless charcoal-fired sticks of meat, expertly grilled to perfection, as part of their daily lives? Why are yakitori so often just a select option on a menu dedicated to other classic Japanese dishes? There should be entire establishments just for them! Particularly given how perfectly they pair with an ice-cold beer (or five), it feels surreal that this isn’t a longstanding scene across the UK.

While we’re at it, we’ve got enough Korean fried chicken now. Yes, it’s delicious, and yes, I will continue to eat a lot of it, but we’ve peaked. It’s everywhere. Can we move onto making authentic Korean BBQ more accessible over here now, please? Everyone across the UK loves a barbie, but our actual BBQ options remain so limited. Let’s change that in the near future.

And just before I forget: horchata. Lots and lots of horchata. There are entire cafes dedicated to it in Valencia, and you will find it as part of any reputable taco stand, stall and Mexican restaurant in Mexico and the United States. If you’ve never had it, I guarantee you, it will be all you want to drink throughout the summer.

With such tantalising possibilities, why must we limit ourselves? From tender tacos al pastor to that mouthwatering Korean barbecue, cuisine here in the UK could be so much more internationally encompassing – and I challenge any aspiring restauranteurs reading this to help make it so!