All for the Love of Fish ‘n Chips

Movie star Rob Lowe eating his fish n chips out of greasy paper (how they should be eaten) at the 2013 Hay Literary Festival.

This is number Two in my accidental “All for the Love of…” series which sees me exploring the deep fried delights and golden, batter-coated scrumptiousness of a traditional British meal – Fish ‘n Chips.

Invented over 155 years ago, the UK’s foodie stalwart of crunchy, battered cod (or Haddock, if you prefer) accompanied by a large portion of chunky, fluffy chips (not crisps or fries you lovely Americans) with ketchup splattered over them, has been keeping our nation going since 1860.

Fish ‘n chips – which, by the way, must never be said using the full “and” word in between Fish and Chips (aargh!), always just as Fish ‘n Chips – are often eaten with a ladleful slop of bright green mushy peas (or even a deep fried mushy pea batter ball).

The classic meal was adopted as the UK’s own but the origin of the famous Fish ‘n Chips’ is unsure.

Some say they were invented by a Jewish immigrant called Joseph Malin, who opened the first fish ‘n chip shop (or “chippie” as they’re known) in Bow Bells, London in 1860. Others say northerner John Lees started selling fish ‘n chips from his wooden hut at Mossley Market in Lancashire in 1863. Some even say Mr Lees sold fish ‘n chips to a writer called Charles Dickens when he was in town. But, you know, “they” say a lot, don’t “they”?

But let’s be honest, it doesn’t matter which is true. What does matter is that Victorian England soon became awash with the greasy, artery-clogging goodness of moist, fried chips accompanied with a cod dipped in batter. Usually the meal was bought from a “chippie” and wrapped up in yesterday’s newspaper to take home for tea (sadly not anymore, though, as fish ‘n chips just wrapped in newspaper was banned by health and safety “experts” in the UK in 1980).

Newpaper isn’t allowed anymore apparently.

Now, some people put beer in their batter when they coat the fish, which is a lovely, finger-lickin’ addition to the classic fish taste. But this approach only usually occurs in posh “gastro pubs” in London. For those unacquainted with this term “gastro-pubs”, these are well-to-do watering hole establishments that aren’t really pubs per se. They’re more like an inoffensive bastardisation of a traditional British pub’s best characteristics; “gastro-pubs” tend to be overly-decorated, often quite pretentious and – let’s be honest – they are where some timid, anxious Londoners go to feel safe on a night out and, therefore, less likely to get into a lager-fuelled fight than they would do in a real, solid, old, manky British pub where the locals eat knuckle sandwiches and the juke box still has vinyl records playing in it (so the music can scratch to a silent stop more efficiently when you walk in).

But I’ve gone off on a cultural tangent. Back to the fish ‘n chips.

Now, the meal of fish ‘n chips itself has become so stereotypically British that everyone has an opinion on how to cook them perfectly.

In my opinion, as with everything in life, it’s best to keep it simple. A portion of chunky, mushy/fluffy chips covered in salt and vinegar, with some ketchup on the side and a large deep-fried battered white fish is best.

Slightly posher gastro-type fish ‘n chips with mushy peas, lemon and splodge of tartare sauce, don’tcha know.

Now, prepare yourself because I’m going to go out on a controversial limb here (and potentially get my limbs cut off by the traditionalists who frequent those solid, British pubs I mentioned earlier). But, nonetheless, I’d say that I prefer my fish to be Hake. Yes, that’s right NOT cod but Hake.

Before you “boo” and “hiss” me, people of Britain, have you tried it? Hmm? Have you? Have you? Well, you should if you haven’t. It’s a far more sustainable fish than cod or haddock and actually has a more rounded taste and fluffy, flaky texture.

Either way, to find your perfect fish ‘n chips, I’d try out some local “chippies” in your area and stick to the best one you like. Where I live, Ray’s Fish Shop on Portland is the best.

Many people in Britain – and, indeed, across the world – have their weekly dose of fish on a friday. In fact, Fish Friday has been around since medieval times – before the beautiful, long-term marriage of fish ‘n chips occurred in 1860

Mouth-watering close-up. Hmm, look at the chiiiiiiiips…

This Fish Friday allegedly sprung from Catholic Christianity – because Jesus died on a Friday. Now, he hadn’t, as far as we know, eaten a deep-fried paralysing puffer-fish for his last supper (although that could be a theory no one’s looked into as its venom does make you look dead for several days…research anyone?), it was just the Catholic Church adopting the tradition of eating fish on a friday. Why? Because they were abstaining from eating hot-blooded animals on fridays – as a way to remember Jesus’ death – and, as fish are cold-blooded, they could eat them instead!

Whether this is true or not, something in British history – possibly King Henry VIII angrily banning Friday Fish Fasting (try saying that with a mouthful of chips) because the Pope refused to divorce him from Catherine of Aragon – ensured we in the Western World think about having fish ‘n chips on a friday.

But, away from the evil clutches of religion, the humble fish ‘n chip meal was said very firmly to have helped us (and the Americans) win both World Wars. Winston Churchill called fish ‘n chips our “good companions” and anything that’s good enough for ‘ole Churchill is good enough for me.

chips in cone
British chips historically served in a cone of grease-proof paper.

So then, people of the deep-fried wondrous world, go forth and visit a rundown British seaside town near you. Find a locally-recommended “chippie” (or real pub) and grab yourself a portion of drool-tastic fish ‘n chips. Then sit down on a windy and/or rainy and/or smelly harbourside wall and chow down on your hearty British meal. And, if you’re properly British, you’ll have a slice of bread ‘n butter with it too to gorge on the melted delights of a perfect chip buttie. Hmm, yummy. I love fish ‘n chips.


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