Quintessentially British things that originated elsewhere
One of the best things about the British is our ability to adapt and change things from various cultures and make them part of our own. After all, I’m sure 83% of you have had a curry within the last fortnight. Sometimes we’re so good at this, that we forget that these things originated elsewhere, so ingrained are they into British culture. So grab a cup of tea and some fish and chips while we cover some of the most quintessentially British things we nicked from somewhere else.
Nothing could be more British than a good cup of char. Right?
Apparently not. As many of you no doubt know, tea originates in East Asia, probably first growing in north Burma and southeast China. Tea drinking is believed to have originated in the Yunnan region of China, during the Shang Dynasty (approx 1766 to 1122 BC), when it was mostly used for medicinal purposes.
Portuguese merchants and priests encountered tea in China in the 16th century, when it was known as chá, where the slang term “cup of char” comes from.
Tea didn’t make it to England until approximately 1657, and British drinkers were the first to add sugar and milk to black tea. We also introduced the wonderful plant to India, hoping to stop the Chinese monopoly, however attempts to grow seeds from China failed in India’s climate. Luckily, a new variant was discovered in Assam and the northeast region of India, being used by a local tribe, so we just grew that instead.
Don’t worry that we’ve only had tea for a few hundred years though. We’ve been more than making up for lost time, drinking a whopping 165 million cups daily (I’m pretty sure I account for about half of that myself) or 60.2 billion per year. The only thing we drink more of? Water.
Fish and chips
As an island nation, it makes a lot of sense to eat fish, which we’ve done for centuries. And our favourite way to prepare it? Deep fry it in a lovely batter, naturally. But the concept of fried fish was brought to the UK in the 16th century, by Jewish refugees arriving from Portugal and Spain, and was based on the dish pescado frito.
It wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century, however, that fish and chips became such a countrywide phenomenon, thanks to the development of railways and canals, which allowed fresh fish to reach all parts of the country before it spoiled.
But fish are only half the story. The rest revolves around the humble slice of fried potato that we call the chip. But the name it carries in the rest of the world holds a clue to its origins. Yup, they’re called French fries in other parts of the world for a fairly good reason. Though the French are in a pretty heated debate with Belgium about who was the first to fry the potato slices.
The Belgians claim that fried tatties have been eaten there since before 1680, with the French claiming to have invented them around 1775.
During the Second World War, fish and chips was one of the few food items not rationed. To this day, British consumers eat some 382 million portions of fish and chips every year.
Who doesn’t love the idea of a mint with a bit missing? Well this famous sweet, wait, NOT the sweet…? People riding on horses? With mallets? That sounds like it has some potential.
Yes, the famous equestrian sport of polo was very popular in England during the 19th century and to this day still summons images of well-to-do gentlemen galloping around their estates.
But the game finds its roots much further afield than you might expect. While scholars can only seem to agree that polo was invented between the 6th century BC and 1st century AD, they do agree that it was started in southern or central Asia, most likely Persia.
From there, the Byzantine Empire picked up the game and went crazy for it. Emperor Alexander even died from exhaustion while playing it.
Polo also made its way to India, where we encountered it and formalised the rules, spreading the popularity around Europe and the New World.
Wearing a frankly ridiculous outfit? Check. Skipping about trying to hit each other with sticks? Check. Bells? Check.
It’s got to be morris dancing, the activity so insane that it just has to be English, right?
As you’ve probably guessed, it’s not. Or at least not originally. The term “morris dancing” first appears in the mid 15th century, with various atrocious spellings, and were used to refer to “Moorish dancing”, a flamboyant type of dance popular all over Europe, and based on the traditional “exotic” dances of the Moors, the Muslim inhabitants of Maghreb, the Iberian peninsula, Sicily, and Malta.
It is always easy to spot a Brit on holiday. They’re usually topless and bright red an hour after they land, right? Even when we’re back home in Blightly, we can’t seem to help but worship that bright yellow thing in the sky (I forget the name) when it makes its rare appearances.
Outdated stereotypes aside, we do seem to love the sun in this country, but Sun worship is nothing new. As far back as 10200 BC, man has worshipped the Sun (that’s the word!) in one form or other.
Most famously, the Egyptian God Ra was worshipped by millions. And judging by the colour of the paintings in Egyptian tombs, they liked to take their tops off and get a bright red tan just as much as we do.
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About Russell Wallace
My fondest holiday was definitely spending two weeks in Texas last Halloween, where I got to shoot guns, doze in the sun and worry about spiders all day. It was much less arid and dry than I was expecting and everyone was so friendly. Southern hospitality is a real thing and it’s amazing. I also found out that a swimming hole is a lot nicer than it sounds.
Russell works in our customer service team