Probably the most identifiable dish in all of Great Britain is ‘fish ‘n chips’. There are “fish shops” or “chippies” on every corner in every village, city and town. Originally, just a ‘take away’ dish, the “National Association of Fish Friers” says there are now over 10,000 fish shops around the U.K. Imagine, though, that at the height of their popularity, there were over 35,000. And whether you go to the “chippie” or you go out for “cod ‘n chips”, you’ll probably get some of the best fried fish you’ve ever had. Cod, of course, is the most popular, with haddock running a close second.
Always served with a shower of salt and a generous splash of malt vinegar, fish ‘n chips is usually accompanied by mushy peas, and a variety of sauces. I must say ‘mushy peas” has always left me a bit wanting … and wondering why they exist. But, let’s put that on hold for the moment.
How and why did fried fish served with fried potatoes get to be Britain’s national comfort food? Well, it seems that this staple of the working class may have come from Portuguese Jews living in Spain and Portugal in the 16th century. As with many other foods, coating their fish in flour and then frying it in oil was something they did quite regularly. But when the religious environment for these people became too hostile, they fled Portugal and Spain and emigrated to the U.K. … where they continued to ‘fry their fish’.
This style of preparing and serving fish became an instant hit. President Thomas Jefferson, after a visit to London in the late 1700s, wrote about eating “fried fish in the Jewish fashion”. And in 1837, Charles Dickens refers to a “fried fish warehouse” in his novel Oliver Twist. Alex Soyer in his 1845 cookbook, “A Shilling Cookery for the People”, includes a recipe for “Fried fish, Jewish fashion”.
Ok, but what about the ‘chips’? Well, in the 1860’s in the East End of London lived the Malin family, Jewish rug weavers by trade, who barely eked out a living. Their young son, Joseph, convinced his family to sell fried potatoes as a way of augmenting their income. Potatoes were commonplace by that time, having been introduced to Europe from South America. (This anti-famine crop actually became a catalyst for famine when blight struck Ireland in the mid-1800s.)
As people realized the nutritional value of potatoes and the ease with which to grow them, potatoes quickly became the food for the workers of the Industrial Revolution. A valuable source of protein, fiber, iron and vitamins, It is said that fish and chips actually kept the working class from starvation. Again, Charles Dickens, a reporter at heart, who always included the current social environment in his novels, mentions “husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil” in his 1859 book, A Tale of Two Cities.
So it seems that ‘fried fish’ and ‘fried potatoes’ were introduced into the British diet separately, but at about the same time. Joseph eventually convinced his family to include fried fish along with their fried potatoes, opening the very first fish and chip shop in 1860, where it continued for over a century. The success of this family-run business was passed down from Joseph to Albert, who worked there until he was close to 100 years old, and then to Dennis. Sadly, Malin’s closed in the 70’s, but their legacy lives on.
Harry Ramsden opened his first fish ‘n chip shop in 1928 in West Yorkshire. In 1952, Harry’s shop earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records by serving over 10,000 portions of fish and chips in one day!
During the First and Second World Wars, fish and chips was one of the few foods in the U.K. not rationed by the British Government. The Territorial Army prepared for battle by eating fish and chips provided for them at training camps in the 1930’s. Winston Churchill called fish and chips “good companions” and claimed that this dish actually helped the British defeat the Nazis during WWII.
Now, of course, there is the The National Fish & Chip Award which selects the best fish ‘n chip shop in Great Britain through a very thorough checklist for quality, authenticity, menu development, and staff training, as well as a sustainable sourcing policy. This highly coveted annual award is announced at The National Fish & Chip Awards’ ceremony in London each January. Who knew there was such formality around fish ‘n chips?
How do you eat fish ‘n chips? Up until recently, fish ‘n chips would be served to you wrapped in newspaper or butcher paper, maybe with a simple wooden fork, and you were expected to sit outside, perhaps on a park bench, or while you were walking along, enjoying this salty, satisfying meal.
Now, fish and chips is also served in the most upscale, sit-down, trendy restaurants, and at exorbitant prices. Celebrity chef, Gordon Ramsay, charges as much as £19.50 for a ‘take-away’ version of this classic dish (which, I must admit, I’d pay.)
Fish and chips is now known and served all over the world. You’d be hard pressed not to see this dish on every pub restaurant menu in the U.S. from Boston to San Francisco. As simple a dish as it is, would I ever attempt to make this British classic at home? Not a chance! But if you are in Britain and you are feeling a bit ‘peckish’, be sure to pop in to the nearest chippie. But if you see soul-satisfying, take-away dish served with a wedge of lemon and a side salad, walk away! I’m not sure where you are, or how you ended up where you did, but this is NOT a traditional chippie or fish shop! Salt, malt vinegar and mushy peas … full stop!
”Todays headlines, tomorrow’s fish and chips wrappings”