I have to admit, fish and chips has never been a favourite dish of mine; like crumbles, cottage and shepherds pies, it was spoiled for me by bad versions of it at school. It wasn’t until my second or third year at boarding school that I started to enjoy it. After late night registration we’d be allowed out to the One Stop, kebab and chippy, which was run by a Chinese family and, to this day, is the best chippy I’ve come across. It spoilt all other chippies for me. Try as I might, I’ve never found one that comes close enough to it for me to want to keep going back.
So, finding battered fish and fried potatoes generally unappealing, I rarely order the dish. However, according to the National Federation of Fish Fryers, we Brits spend £1,200,000,000 a year buying 382 million portions of the stuff. On the face of it then, it’s a pretty popular dish, and these numbers are probably an underestimate.
I’m willing to bet, given their source, that they ignore the numbers served in restaurants of all kinds up and down the country, from chain restaurants to gentlemen’s clubs to the likes of The Ivy and other top London restaurants. They also ignore where I first ate fish and chips: at school lunches or, more accurately, Friday school lunches. With such numbers of the dish being eaten, it’s not surprising it’s quintessentially British. But what makes it truly British is its cultural impact and history, even if its roots are not.
Fried fish was first brought to the UK by a group of Jews from Portugal who came to England in the 1500s to escape the Inquisition
As I write this, it is Remembrance Sunday, which make this quite an appropriate subject to be writing about. Lloyd George, during The Great War, and Churchill, during the Second World War, both realised the importance of the dish, both for keeping the working classes in the factories and mines well fed and for keeping up the morale of the people as a whole. As a result, fish and chips were kept off rationing.
British soldiers even used the name as a way to identify one another during the D-Day landings, with one calling out ‘fish’ and waiting for the other to reply ‘chip’. The Great War had such an impact on the consumption of the dish that, by the interwar period, around two thirds of all fish caught at sea by British fishermen were consumed as fish and chips, with those fishing on deep sea trawlers providing a highly valuable source of experienced men for the Royal Navy when war broke out again in September 1939.
But this is just the modern history of fish and chips. Fried fish was first brought to the UK by the Marranos of Portugal, a group of Jews who came to England in the 1500s to escape the Inquisition, which was forcing them to convert to Christianity.
They are recorded as having eaten fish dipped in egg and breadcrumbs and then fried. In the 13th edition of Eliza Acton’s hit 1845 book, Modern Cookery, published in 1863, a section on Foreign and Jewish Cookery was included for the first time. This contains a number of dishes for fried fish in batter in its fish chapter, while the Foreign and Jewish Cookery chapter contains a recipe for fried salmon, though this involves simply frying the fish in oil.
Famously, potatoes were first brought to Britain in the 17th Century by Sir Walter Raleigh, as portrayed in the second series of Blackadder
Meanwhile, in his 1855 book, Soyer’s Shilling Cookery for the People, which he published to help the masses provide for themselves following his mission to Ireland to help alleviate the effects of the Potato Famine, the great Alexis Soyer (both he and Acton I shall return to in future articles as both are hugely important and interesting individuals) included a number of recipes for fried fish, two of which come under the title of ‘Fried Fish, Jewish Fashion’, which give instructions on how to batter the fish and fry it. He goes on to extol the virtues of the dish for its ability to keep well for a long time after cooking and for its cheapness (costing by his estimate 3p – 4p per pound weight) and nutritional value.
Potatoes and chips have an almost equally long history. Famously, potatoes were first brought to Britain in the 17th century by Sir Walter Raleigh, as portrayed in the second series of Blackadder, which made great fun of this event in one of its episodes. Chips come to us either from Belgium or France and eaten on their own became something of a staple for the impoverished working classes in the industrial north.
As the inclusion of fried fish recipes in Victorian cookbooks would suggest, fried fish was an increasingly popular dish at the time. This popularity was driven by the birth of mechanisation both on land and at sea. This allowed fresh fish to be caught further out to sea and brought to land faster and, once back on land, it enabled it to be transported further and more quickly than before without spoiling.
Some odd foods were declared fish rather than meat by the Church; duck was classed as fish on the basis that it swims on water
Fried fish shops spread rapidly, especially in London and newly industrialised towns and cities where there were large populations of workers. Fried fish shops were even referenced by Charles Dickens. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that fried fish was paired with fried chips, with the first chippy opening in East London in 1860. One Joseph Malin, an Ashkenazi Jew, opened the store not far from the bells of Bow.
The fact that fish and chips is traditionally a Friday dish also has cultural and historical roots. As Soyer mentions, once cooked, battered fish can be kept and eaten cold at a later date. This made it perfect for cooking on the Friday before being eaten on the Sabbath (Saturday). Additionally, Christians historically did not eat meat on a Friday but instead consumed fish.
In fact this did lead to some odd foods being declared fish rather than meat by the Church so that the rich could circumvent the religious ban; my favourite example of this is duck being classed as fish on the basis that it swims on water. As such, it is perhaps not surprising that such a popular dish as fish and chips would become associated with Friday.
A history involving immigration, religion and industrial revolution, in advance of its prevalence as the food that powered Britain’s industries and war efforts, clearly makes fish and chips typically British. As I say, I’m not really a great fan of the dish but at times there is nothing better than a well fried piece of cod accompanied by good chips. So I’ve created my own recipe to cook at home, made up of the best chips and tartare sauce you could hope to produce, with a nice piece of pan fried cod with crispy skin and mushy peas
~Fish, Chips, Mushy Peas and Tartare Sauce~
The classic combination for 2
For the chips you want good duck or goose fat. When I cooked this the other day I used the duck fat I saved from frying two duck breasts for the previous Sunday’s dinner. The chips are oven cooked as I don’t have a deep fat fryer and I don’t like to have a pot of oil heated to such a high temperature on the stove. I think it unhealthy and frankly potentially highly dangerous, even if you know what you’re doing. I promise you, however, that these will be the best chips you’ve ever made.
For the tartare sauce you can make your own mayonnaise, but this can be time consuming and tricky and, given you only need the mayonnaise as a way to bind all the other ingredients in the tartar sauce, shop-bought mayonnaise is fine.
- 2 x Cod Fillets/Loins with Skin
- 3-4 Good sized Maris Piper Potatoes
- 2 Desert Spoons of Duck Fat or Goose Fat
For the Mushy Peas:
- 100g Peas
- 25g Butter
- Juice of ¼ Lemon
For the Tartar Sauce:
- 3-4 Desert Spoons of Mayonnaise
- Handful of fresh Parsley – roughly chopped
- Handful of fresh Tarragon – roughly chopped
- Heaped Desert Spoon of Capers – roughly chopped
- 8-10 Cornichons – sliced
- Juice of ¼ Lemon
- Start by making the chips. Place a baking tray in the oven and heat the oven to 180°C on fan. Meanwhile peel the potatoes and cut them into batons about 5mm wide and high.
- Then put the fat in the baking tray and, once it is melted and hot, add the chips. Toss them in the fat to ensure all are well coated, add salt and place them in the oven. Cook for 20 minutes, then increase the temperature to 200°C and cook for a further 10 minutes, before increasing the temperature again to 250°C for a further 10-15 minutes to turn the chips golden brown and slightly crispy. Every 10 minutes remember to move the chips around the baking tray so they cook evenly and don’t stick to the tray. Once cooked, remove from the oven and serve.
- Meanwhile put the peas on to cook. Put them in a small saucepan and add the salt, pepper, butter and the lemon juice. Add just enough water to cover the peas and bring to the boil. Once the water is boiling, turn the heat right down and leave to cook for about 30 minutes until almost all the water has gone. Once cooked, roughly crush/mash the peas with a fork and serve.
- While the chips and peas are cooking, make the tartare sauce by combining all the ingredients in a bowl. Taste to check the seasoning, lemon and piquancy; you want it to have both an herby freshness and a sharp, salty piquancy at the same time.
- When the chips and peas have 5 more minutes to cook, heat a frying pan with a little oil. Season the skin of the cod with salt and pepper and, once the pan is hot, place the cod to fry skin side down for 3 minutes to crisp up. Turn the fish over to cook on the flesh side for a further 2 minutes. Then serve along with the chips, mushy peas and tartare sauce.