Fish and chips: a very British obsession

Last Friday, 4 September, was National Fish and Chips Day. Which, in my view, is a bit odd. After all, the combination of fried fish and chipped potatoes is – unofficially, at least – the UK’s national dish, an iconic part of our cultural heritage. Although they won’t win many Michelin stars, fish and chips are a British staple, a British obsession even. Surely, every day is Fish and Chips Day?

PHOTO CREDIT: Magda Glazewska (@magdag) via Unsplash

Of course, the people who declared 4 September to be National Fish and Chips Day had an agenda. The festivities were the brainchild of NEODA. Never heard of them? Neither had I, but a quick trawl on the internet reveals NEODA to be the National Edible Oil Distributors Association, a trade organisation representing “all the major refiners, key packers and distributors of edible oils.” So now you know…I expect you feel much better for that!

It’s easy to understand why the good folk at NEODA want to promote fish and chips, but frankly they’re pushing against an open door. The British love affair with the dish has been around for at least 150 years, and shows no sign of abating.

We need to talk about chips

Q: When are chips not chips? A: When they’re (French) fries.

To assist North American readers of this post, I need to explain that the food item we Brits call “chips” is referred to on your side of the Pond as “fries,” or maybe “French fries.” The snacks that you describe as “potato chips” are called “potato crisps” over here, because…well, because they’re made from potatoes and are kinda crisp. Confusing, eh? When George Bernard Shaw, the renowned early 20th century Irish playwright, observed that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language,” this was exactly the sort of nonsense he had in mind.

We Brits like to think of chips as quintessentially British. Wrong! Of course it was an Englishman, Sir Walter Raleigh, who first introduced potatoes – originating in South America – to northern Europe in the late 16th century. However it was the French who invented chips, pieces of potato around 1cm square, cut in varying lengths and deep-fried. The clue’s in the appellation French fries, although the Belgians claim it was they – and not their southern neighbours – who made the culinary breakthrough

By the beginning of the 19th century chips had made it across the English Channel and were being cooked and eaten in the UK. First published in 1817, William Kitchiner’s cookbook The Cook’s Oracle, includes the earliest known recipe for something similar to modern chips. However, fish and chips, the double-act that was to wow the nation, had yet to make an appearance

A marriage made in heaven

As an island nation, we Brits have always eaten a lot of fish. However, coating fish in a floury batter and then frying it in oil was unknown until the early 1800s. The practice appears to have been brought to Britain by Jewish immigrants from Spain and Portugal, where fish was traditionally cooked in this fashion. It soon caught on, and is mentioned in Charles Dickens’s 1839 novel Oliver Twist, which references a “fried fish warehouse.”

Frankie’s Fish and Chips, the UK’s most northerly chippy, sells fish ‘n” chips to eat in or take away. We ate in, and had an excellent meal!

The marriage between the feisty fish and the humble chip was consummated around 20 years after Oliver Twist was first published. Who should get the credit is hotly disputed, just another chapter in the interminable tussle for cultural supremacy between “the south” (aka London and its environs) and “the north” (aka anywhere up-country of Watford.)

Proponents of southern supremacy claim the first combined fish and chip shop was opened by a Jewish immigrant, Joseph Malin, in east London around 1860. However, northerners have their own hero, one John Lees, who is believed to have been selling fish and chips out of a wooden hut at Mossley market, near Manchester in industrial Lancashire, in 1863.

Regardless of who thought of it first, fish ‘n’ chips soon became a staple food item, particularly amongst the working class poor, for whom the meal constituted a welcome addition to normally bland diets. Shops selling fish and chips for customers to take away and eat elsewhere, often wrapped in old newspaper for extra convenience and cheapness, became known as chippies. They quickly spread across the length and breadth of the country, serving urban populations that grew rapidly as the Industrial Revolution took hold.

But the passion for fish ‘n’ chips was not confined to densely populated industrial settings. The craze spread to small country towns, and isolated rural settings too. Last year we had the pleasure of visiting Frankie’s, the UK’s most northerly chippy. Situated in the village of Brae on the main island of Shetland, which lies almost around 200 miles off the north-east coast of Scotland, Frankie’s maintains a reputation for high quality fish ‘n’ chips despite its very remote location.

The red spot (top right of inset map) shows location of Frankie’s!

By 1930 there were more than 35,000 chippies across the UK. Today, there are still 10,500, serving an estimated 382 million meals of fish ‘n’ chips every year. This is equivalent to six servings annually for every British man, woman and child. Almost a quarter of the UK population is believed to visit a chippy at least once a week.

With the arrival of chippies in towns and cities across the UK, the lives – and diets – of working people would never be quite the same again. These days, of course, they face stiff competition from other fast-food outlets, including those selling burgers, fried chicken, and Indian and Chinese takeaways. All have their place, and some may even outsell their older rival, but none is so deeply embedded in British culinary culture as good ol’ fish ‘n’ chips!

Choose your fish

The most popular fish sold in chippies is cod (around 62%), followed by haddock (around 25%). Others, seen less frequently, include hake, skate, plaice, sole and pollock. Several years ago George’s, our local chippy, briefly offered hoki, a fish found in the waters around New Zealand. They don’t sell hoki any more, which is probably no bad thing considering the monstrous carbon footprint each portion entailed.

Growing up in London in the 1960s, my fish of choice was rock salmon. Sounds grand, doesn’t it? But the name is marketing bullshit, an attempt by canny fishmongers to glamorise the patently unglamorous dogfish, or huss. I now live in the English midlands, and up here they don’t sell rock salmon. I don’t know whether to be impressed that the locals have seen through the promotional smokescreen, or appalled that they are denying me a much-loved childhood treat.

Condiments and accompaniments

Originally a meal of fish ‘n’ chips was served with no condiment or accompaniment other than a sprinkling of salt, but today just about anything goes. While the standard condiment remains salt and vinegar, popular alternatives include curry sauce and gravy. Tomato ketchup is also well liked by some, and was favoured by none other than John Lennon. In Edinburgh, however, a tangy brown sauce is preferred.

Moving on to accompaniments or side dishes, pickles of various types, including onions, gherkins and eggs, all have their fans. And then, of course, there are mushy peas.

What in god’s name, I hear you ask, are mushy peas? Well, put it this way. Imagine dissolving Shrek, the Incredible Hulk, Kermit the Frog and a sack full of oversized, bullet-hard marrowfat peas in a seething vat of acid, and mixing the resultant pulp with a bucket-load of fermented goose droppings. Got the picture? Well, mushy peas are worse than that. They are the devil’s work.

Mushy peas

PHOTO CREDIT: “Mushy peas” by Simon Lieschke is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Found mostly in more northerly parts of the country, mushy peas are an acquired taste that this Londoner-by-birth could never be bothered to acquire. It seems to me that anyone liking them must be just a little bit odd…on which point I should add that Michael Jackson is reputed to have adored mushy peas. I rest my case.

And while we’re exploring the darkest recesses of culinary good taste, perhaps I should mention the Deep Fried Mars Bar. In the UK Mars is a divinely decadent chocolate bar consisting of nougat and caramel covered in milk chocolate (the US version is rather different). “Naughty but nice” sums it up perfectly. In 1995 a Scottish chippy, encouraged by a pair of customers who were clearly chancing their luck, experimented with coating a Mars Bar in batter and then deep frying it.

The trial was pronounced a success (nobody died!) and pretty soon Deep Fried Mars Bars were on sale in chippies throughout Scotland, although whether anyone actually eats them alongside fish ‘n’ chips is unclear. I confess I’ve never tried one myself: life’s too short, and mine would probably be a damned sight shorter if I indulged in stuff like that.

Celebrating National Fish and Chips Day

It would have been churlish of us not to celebrate National Fish and Chips Day, so Mrs P did the decent thing and went online early Friday morning to place an order. I drove into town at lunchtime to collect the heavenly treat, and minutes later we were tucking into a feast of cod and chips, delicately seasoned with a sprinkling of salt and a splash of vinegar.

And not a mushy pea or deep fried Mars Bar in sight!