Fish & Chips: A Flipping Great Tail That Can’t Be Battered
Not strictly proper is a pub, restaurant, or cafe that claims to serve "traditional fish and chips". Authenticity is easy to find. The clue lies in the name "shop," and a shop denotes an establishment into which you walk, purchase the merchandise, and walk out of again--with said merchandise in hand.
A proper fish and chip shop will have a deep frying range on view because in such a shop, the food is fried fresh and sold quickly, mainly to take away. Some chippies provide a few tables for customers who prefer to eat in, and some have restaurants attached. If you’re a visitor in London, the "restauranty" kind of place is the one you want to seek out.
Londoners are a loyal bunch. They talk about their local chippy, and I’ve been going to mine for about thirty years. It’s had the same owner since it opened. It seats no more than about sixteen people although there are rarely more than two or three people eating in at any one time. Mine is definitely more of a shop and less of a restaurant. I buy my food, and I move on and I move out, usually back home, to eat my fish and chips in front of the telly, watching whatever box set is top of the list (Mad Men or Breaking Bad right now since you ask).
Like many "traditional" British dishes (curry for instance), fish and chips, as separate entities from each other, are not strictly speaking what you’d call British. It’s said that the fried chip is Irish in origin and that fried fish is an import by Jewish immigrants. (Thomas Jefferson describes eating "fried fish in the Jewish fashion" during a visit to London.) The chip is not in any way French. That suggestion will not be tolerated although, credit due, the pommes frites or French fry, does appear to be a Gallic invention. The traditional chip is much thicker--a solid slice or wedge or, indeed, chip of potato.
The combination of the chip and the fried fish also seems to be Jewish in origin. There was clearly a gap in the market, a gluttonous great empty hole, and that gap has been well and truly filled ever since Joseph Malin thought of combining the foods in a take-away shop in London around 1860 and Samuel Isaacs opened the first restaurant serving the combination in the 1890’s.
During the same period, the north of England (especially in Lancashire) developed its own way of frying and combining the fish and the chip, and so developed the regional differences, which are maintained and loyally championed to this day. Northerners' "batter" tends to be beef dripping and southerners use vegetable oil, although in certain parts of London, fish fried in matzo meal is still an option.
Fish and chips has always been regarded as working-class food. It gained its popularity in the industrial heartlands of Britain, and during WWII, the dish was deemed so important to morale, it was not rationed, unlike many other staples.
King Edward (the potato, not the monarch), Maris Piper, or Desiree seem to be the favourite potatoes from which to make chips. The fish of choice in London tends to be cod, haddock, or plaice, although there are regional variations and favourites that prevail too.
However, it’s the accompaniments that provide the icing on the cake--if you get my meaning--for any fish and chip meal. Mushy peas, or even peas that haven’t been mushed, are a popular side dish. A large, sweet, pickled cucumber would not go amiss either and can be found on all chippy menus.
Sauces are also important. Some people prefer tartar sauce or tomato ketchup--it's all a matter of taste--but it’s the condiments that are really crucial. Salt and vinegar go together in the British psyche, not so much like horse and carriage, but like fish and chips. A light sprinkling of salt and malt vinegar over the chips is recommended.
So back to the BIG question, where do you get the best fish and chips? Because of the foods origins, fish and chip shops (with restaurants) tend to be found in residential areas. They certainly don’t cluster within what could be described as traditionally posh neighbourhoods. I can’t think of any fish and chip shops in Belgravia for instance, or Knightsbridge.
I’ll get the ball rolling by mentioning a few well-known establishments. I have always liked the North Sea Fish Restaurant, 7 Leigh Street, WC1.
The Rock and Sole Plaice, 4 Endell Street, WC2
The Sea Shell, 49 Lisson Grove, NW1
Seafresh, 80 Wilton Road, SW1
Fish Central, 149 Central Street, EC1
Faulkeners, 424 Kingsland Road, E8,
Poppies, 6 Hanbury Street, E1
Fryer’s Delight, 19 Theobald’s Road, WC1
Graham is a qualified and experienced London Taxi Tour Guide (since 2001), Licensed London Taxi Driver, BA.Hons (History) and proud Londoner.
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