The Humble Beginnings of Fish and Chips

This is one of those meals that comes with a lifetime of memories. For some, it is warm summer nights with family and friends, a drive to a seaside community for the local best, or, it could be the perfect ending of a night out with friends. For me, fish and chips remind me of my trip to Ireland with my sister. I think my sister ate at every fish and chip shop from Galway to Dublin.

Fish and chips, for those who have lived under a rock, is a fantastic hot coupling of fried battered fish and hot chips. Traditionally, the white fish receives a dusting of flour, a dip into a batter consisting of flour and water (or beer), followed by a dunk into a hot pot of lard or cooking oil. New modifications include cornstarch, soda water, milk, and/or and a little vinegar to create lightness. The "chips" are beautifully thick cuts of fried potatoes that are the perfect pairing to the fish.

The belief is the fried fish concept came to England by the immigrating Spanish Jews. Spanish Jews, who settled in England in the 17th century, prepared fried fish in a manner similar to a traditional Judeo-Spanish Shabbat meal, called Pescado Frito. Pescado Frito, which translates to "fried little fish", is a flour-coated fish cooked in olive oil with a sprinkling of seasoning. The meal quickly spread across the working classes in England, as the products became readily available due to industrial inventions. In the second half of the 19th century, developing railways were connecting heavily populated industrial cities around the same time as the commercial fishing industry was using the steam-trawling boats in the North Sea, coupled with new cooling ice machines. By connecting the railways with the ports and major cities, fresh fish would be available to the masses allowing for the inexpensive staple food of the north to expand to the south and beyond. The chip allegedly came to England from the new world in the 17th century by Sir Walter Raleigh. However, we do need to keep in mind that the French invented the fried potato chip. Pommes frites, anyone?

A solid indication of the meal popularity in England comes from the famed writer Charles Dickens. Dickens often wrote about the then-popular food and drinks in England, and fish and chips was no exception. After spending sometime in Northern England, Dickens wrote about the “fried fish warehouse” in his 1839 novel Oliver Twist. The second reference comes in 1859 in Dickens famed A Tale of Two Cities when he wrote “husky chips of potatoes, fried with some reluctant drops of oil”. Around the same time, the Deep-fried chips as a dish first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary. Former US president, and original “foodie” Thomas Jefferson also penned his experience of eating “fried fish in the Jewish fashion” after a visit to the English capital in the end of the 18th Century.

There are two fish and chip “take away” shops, in two competing parts of England, that lay claim to “first”, as you can imagine this is hotly contested. The first stake is for Joseph Malin, a young Jewish immigrant, who opened the first fish and chip shop in the East End of London on Cleveland Street around 1860. Malin, whose family were rug weavers, was looking for a way to supplement the family income so he started to sell fried fish in a traditional Judeo-Spanish way from the home. Did I mention he was 13 when he started this endeavor? Before he opened the fish shop, Malin would walk the streets of London, likely with a tray hanging from around his neck, selling his income maker. The Malin family closed their chip shop in the early 1970s, after over a hundred years in business. The second claim, from Oldham, Lancashire, came from Mossely’s. The proprietor, John Lees, opened a wooden hut at a market in Mossely’s around 1863. Later, Lees moved the shop across the street and had an inscription on the window that prominently displayed Lees opinion on where he stood in food history, “This is the first fish and chip shop in the world”. Well, okay! The first “sit down” fish and chips restaurant opened in 1896 by Samuel Isaacs, who up until that point ran a popular retail fish business in London. The meal, served with bread and butter, and tea, for the cost of nine pence. Located in Yeadon, near Leeds, is the oldest operating chippie in England. The appropriately named “The Oldest Fish and Chip Shop in the World” has been operating from the same premises since 1865. If you cannot make it to Leeds, London’s oldest operating chippie is in the Covent Garden section, called Rock and Sole Plaice, dating from 1871. Who ever was the first, wherever, all these shops were at the beginning of something special in England.

The meal became so popular that by 1910, there were more than 25,000 fish and chip shops across England.

The early chip shops were very humble, operating within basic facilities. Simply, the shops consisted of a large vat of cooking fat, heated by a coal fire. The fish and chip shop would modernize a bit more over the years, and would begin serving the food in a low cost option, newspaper. The low cost of the materials allowed the meal cost to remain low for the consumer. By the 1980s, the classic wrapper was ruled unsafe for the food, due to the exposure of newspaper ink to the food. Out of nostalgia and functionality, many chip shops in England continue to use the newspaper but place a layer of greaseproof paper between the food and the newspaper. The newspaper does provide some insulation, not to mention that it assists with absorbing some of that grease.

The companion to fish and chips is also variant from place to place. In a traditional UK chipper, a sprinkling of salt and vinegar over hot fish and chips. However there are some areas, notably the Midlands, that prefer to offer their dish with a side of mushy peas, known as "pea mix". Rumer has it that music legend Michael Jackson preferred his fish and chips with the pea mix. For those who do not enjoy the peas, other options include pickles, onions, eggs, and lemons. In Belgium, the meal is served with mayonnaise, while in China it is served with sugar. There is another option, which interests me much, is the blobs of batter that is deep-fried. Initially started as a bit of a mistake or throw away, the "wi’bits, scraps, bits (Southern England), scrumps (South Wales)" are popular with a warm dipping sauce.

No greater example of the love the British have for this dish comes from the time of World War II. The United Kingdom made a bold decision to not ration this meal, like many other food items. Perhaps the Prime Minister had something to do with this. The larger than life PM, Winston Churchill, once famously called fish and chips “the good companions”. The belief was that this meal was so beloved by the people that the government feared that the rationing of this meal would create unnecessary distress and poor morale. Not to mention, it could affect the nutrition of the citizens. Fish and chips does have some nutrition value, as the meal does have a valuable source of protein, fiber, iron and vitamins and, depending on the size and how it was made, does have a lower fat count than other fried food. The decision by the government had quite a bit of merit. In 2010, the newspaper ,the Independent, revealed that through research that this dish is more iconic to England than the Queen or the Beatles.

In 2003, the UK has some concerns about what fish the restaurants and chippers were offering to the consumers. The Fish Labeling Regulations 2003 enacted standardization of the fish in the meal. The fish must be sold using the commercial name it goes by, for example on menus “cod and chips” replaces “fish and chips”. In Britain and Ireland, cod and haddock appear most commonly as the fish used for fish and chips.

Fish and Chips are no longer just a beloved dish of England. It has spread throughout the world, all with a little twist.

Scotland - In 1870, a Belgian immigrant Edward De Gernier created the first chip shop in the city of Dundee. Within the country, the favorite companion to the meal is called “chippy sauce”. The brown sauce is mixed with water or malt vinegar is popular and traditional.

Ireland - The first fish and chips were sold by an Italian immigrant, Giuseppe Cervi, who mistakenly stepped off an America-bound ship in County Cork in the 1880s. Allegedly, Cervi walked all the way to Dublin after his unfortunate mistake. In order to make a living, Cervi started selling fish and chips outside Dublin pubs from a handcart. Brilliant. Eventually, Cervi's concept was so popular he landed in a permanent location on Pearse Street. It was said that his wife Palma would ask customers "Uno di questa, uno di quella?", which translates to "one of this, one of the other". This phrase became so popular, it entered the vernacular in Dublin as "one and one", which is still a way of referring to fish and chips in the city.

India - this dish is a bit of a delicacy in India. The Pomfret fish is combined with a batter that has generous amounts of chili paste and pepper.

United States - In most of the country, the dish is referred to as “fish and chips” except for a few exceptions. In some part of the country, the dish is called “fish fry”. What ever you choose to call it, the dish is always served with potato fries, often a thick version called steak fries. Depending on where you consume this meal, you will find that most regions utilize local fish. For example; the southeast uses catfish, the northeast offers cod or haddock, while the west has started to use salmon.

Denmark - this meal in Denmark is a bit more sophisticated. Generally served in a restaurant, not take away, the fish is breaded and fried served with remoulade, a slice of lemon, and pommes frites on the side.

Australia and New Zealand - Australia generally uses reef cod, barramundi, flathead, flake, or snapper, while New Zealand favors hoki, lemon fish and blue cod. There is some variation on the pronouncation of the words, "fish and chips". Word has it that New Zealanders hear Australians say "feesh and cheeps," while Australians hear New Zealanders say "fush and chups."

Modern day UK, the fish and chip is still one of the favorites. By 1999, the British consumed nearly 300 million servings of fish annually. The amount of chip shops strongly outnumbers a well-known fast food restaurant chain, McDonalds. In the spirit of progress, the UK is developing solutions for putting all that cooking grease to good use. One of the proposals is to have the grease sent to companies to convert it to biodiesel. Like I needed an excuse to eat more fish and chips... now it would be for the good of the environment (or what ever else I tell myself to rationalize eating more)!

Recent Posts
Search By Tags