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Looking back at bubble and squeak over the years

British people take for granted that “bubble and squeak” will certainly play a part in their dining experience. It’s a British favorite, though how many people who eat this delicacy know of the history or the origin of the meal? Cooks who are familiar with British cuisine will also be familiar with the works of Mary Holland. This lady described herself in the opening pages of her book, “The Complete Economical Cook and Frugal Housewife” as a “Professed Cook” although her work clearly shows her mastery of cuisine was more than she took credit for. This book is a classic for the British kitchen and it is within its pages that she described how to make meals using leftovers. Bubble and squeak was among those recipes written as a collection as long ago as in 1837. The recipe itself has been changed over the years and originally left over beef was used to create a meal the next day. Delicately sliced beef was mixed with cabbage to produce a filling meal which gave rise to the variations used since the book was written.

Mary Holland may have made the meal popular, though there were references made to this meal long before her book was written. In a humorous book entitled “The Midwife or The Old Woman’s Magazine” Christopher Smart mentioned the meal in passing, thus taking the history of this delicacy back to 1753. The pages of this book make interesting reading as the humor shown within the pages of the book are clearly British and, although written in old style English, is still a delight to read. The book sold as a limited edition for three pence, though it would appear that bubble and squeak was already in popular vogue at the time of writing the book. Thus, it is quite possible that it comes from earlier days. One thing that is sure is that the recipe has been modified over time since the original recipe always included meat.

The Irish possibly influenced the recipe, since the Irish equivalent was very similar in nature and did not include meat. This recipe, known as “Colcannon” is the nearest equivalent to bubble and squeak and used potato as the main ingredient, adding other leftover vegetables and cooking these in a similar way to the way bubble and squeak is prepared. Colcannon was eaten on All Hallows Eve and the mixture of potato and cabbage is reminiscent of the recipe for bubble and squeak, other than the variance of using Brussel Sprouts instead of cabbage. Indeed another variance was that bubble and squeak was eaten on Boxing Day using leftover vegetables from the Christmas dinner. Since Brussels sprouts are traditionally associated with British Christmas dinner, it’s not surprising that this change to from cabbage to Brussels sprouts was made. Cabbage is rarely used for the Christmas celebrations.

During, and after the war, food shortages meant that housewives were forced to live on food rations. Many grew their own vegetables in an attempt to stretch the food further, and bubble and squeak would have been a popular meal to make up for there not being sufficient meat available for every day of the week. The variations which made the recipe interesting were that different vegetables were added due to necessity.

The most delicious bubble and squeak is made with left over roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts and any other vegetable left from Sunday lunch. All of the ingredients are mixed together and then placed in a pan prepared with melted butter. The mixture is flattened with a spatula and left to cook until the area underneath is golden. It is then turned several times, so that the golden area spreads throughout the dish. Salt and pepper are added according to personal taste. The great thing about this recipe is that quantities are not important as various tastes are created by the frying process, whether potatoe is in more generous supply than Brussels sprouts or vice versa.

There are two ways of serving this dish. Some serve it as a mashed mixture, while others make it into separate patties shaped like beefburgers. In many households in the British Isles it is also served with a full English breakfast as a complement to bacon, egg, sausages and baked beans.

So why bubble and squeak?

There are various versions of why the food gained this name. British people, these days, believe the “bubbles” to be because of the shape of Brussels sprouts and often families reinforce this little bit of trivia, though they are mistaken. Although young people may believe that the bubbles are the rounded shaped Brussels sprouts, and this seems a logical explanation, the recipe was actually defined in a dictionary which is dated as far back as 1785. by Francis Gros, as being:

“Beef and cabbage fried together. It is so called from its bubbling up and squeaking whilst over the fire.”
The recipe has a very interesting background and no doubt there are variations all over the world which use up leftovers. However, bubble and squeak has its roots firmly embedded in British history and is about as traditionally British as food gets. It’s deliciously tempting and extremely enjoyable.