The UK is an island surrounded by some of the coldest, deepest, most pristine fishing waters in the world. The north sea contains huge stocks of cod, herring and other species. Brown crab, scallops and salmon grown in UK waters are considered to be among the best in the world in terms of quality and taste.
So why don’t Brits eat more of the seafood that swims around our shores?
Since living in Spain and Korea, where seafood is consumed in huge quantities, I have started to wonder about this.
Let’s take a close look at some possible reasons why most people in the UK prefer a pork chop to a dover sole.
Of course, fish and chips is the most well-known British food and people do still eat a lot of this. Traditionally, it is eaten on a Friday as a treat before the weekend. Most towns and villages have a ‘fish bar’ and you can order anything from cod to sausages battered and then deep fried.
The perfect fish and chips consists of a light, crispy batter encasing flaky, soft, steamed cod, paired with thick, hand-cut, chips and side dishes such as mushy peas or bread and butter.
It is an absolutely incredible meal when done right. Sadly, if you visit 10 fish and chip shops, you’ll probably have one great meal and the rest will be piles of greasy, heavy batter and overcooked fish.
In my humble opinion, hands down the best fish and chip shop in the UK is Papa’s in Weston-Super-Mare in North Somerset. I guarantee you’ll have one of the best meals of your life if you go there.
However, when it comes to seafood, most Brits draw the line at fish and chips or maybe a fish pie. ‘But you live on an island!’ they say. ‘Why don’t you eat seafood?’ I’m asked constantly.
Here in Korea, where I live, the variety of seafood caught and consumed is much wider than in the UK. Koreans eat, among other things, octopus, squid, clams, whale, oysters, sea cucumbers, anemones, and abalone. The list goes on.
Over my time here, I have learned to like some of these delicacies, but I wasn’t brought up eating any of them during my childhood in the UK in the 80s and 90s. Even today, with more access to information online about how to prepare and cook fish and delicious seafood recipes from around the world, the average British person wouldn’t eat much of this.
The possible reasons for our lack of love for fish are many, from the fact that once the UK turned Protestant in the 16th century, fish was seen as “too Catholic” and Brits were encouraged to not to eat it, to the theory that we don’t like to look into the eyes of the creatures we consume. In my experience, the UK is a nation of animal lovers almost unlike any other country. We tend to anthropomorphosise animals to a great extent, assigning them human feelings and qualities. This even stretches to include things like lobsters and other crustaceans. Some people think this is why we don’t like dealing with whole fish with heads and eyes.
Of course, the famous British class system also comes into play here. In years gone by, seaside holiday towns would have stalls selling cockles and mussels very cheaply and these became staples with the poor and working class, who couldn’t afford meat or other more expensive fish.
Richer people looked down on this food and considered it unfit for consumption. Shellfish like clams, mussels and oysters then got a bad reputation and weren’t considered desirable by many people for a long time (they still aren’t for a majority of Brits).
Another big reason we don’t eat seafood is that we sell most of it to other countries. The UK, especially Scotland, has fantastic quality fish and shellfish, however most of it is packaged and trucked over to Spain and France as soon as it is caught.
This trade is worth around £500 million per year to the UK economy and has been preserved in order to maintain economic stability in Scotland and other areas where the seafood is caught and harvested. So, we don’t immediately see shellfish as food, rather as trading currency.
Mostly though, it seems the main reason we don’t eat much fish is that we think it’s expensive, perishable, smelly and difficult to eat. Most British people don’t know how to prepare and clean a whole fish and lots of us turn our noses up at the smell.
Despite this, a recent study has indicated that Brits do want to eat more seafood and are open to doing so for climate and health reasons.
Also, with complications around exports in the Covid-19 era and fishing and fishing rights disputes arising from Brexit, Brits may find that to keep their fishing industry afloat, they have to eat more of the fish caught here as it won’t be easily exportable to the core European markets of France and Spain anymore.
Maybe it’s time to put fish back on the menu?