Frying Tonight

Something that is occasionally lamented by people (citation needed) is the fact that the British national dish – or at any rate its most popular – is chicken tikka masala, a dish whose British status is dubious at best. If you’re going to talk about a national takeaway dish for this country, surely a more appropriate one would be fish and chips? Bad news, holmes, it turns out fish and chips is just as cross-cultural.

See, like more-or-less any recipe, it’s very hard to pin down a precise origin in the days before mass media. Take your man tikka masala up there. Some accounts have it invented in Glasgow. Others have it as an Indian dish pre-dating the British occupation. In the case of fish and chips, it’s even harder – you have your fried fish and your chips, and it’s very easy to put those two together. Hell, it was probably invented several times, entirely independently.

However, the first fish and chip shop is generally acknowledged to have been opened in Cleveland Street in Bow by one Joseph Malin at some point in the 1860s. The claim is disputed – other possible first chippies were in Oldham, Lancashire and Mossley, Manchester. Coastal towns occasionally pipe up and try to claim it for themselves, too.

Fish and chips weren’t really possible until the middle of the 19th century, when trawlers (like the one on the right, as well as sail-powered examples) appeared. These were capable of catching fish in sufficient quantities to make them viable as cheap, working-class food.  The relatively new railways meant that for the first time, sea fish became widely available inland.

The concept of frying fish in batter is (sorry, Nick Griffin) a Jewish recipe brought to Northern Europe via Spain and Portugal. Given the large Jewish community in London’s East End in the 19th century, it’s unsurprising that this toothsome delicacy should crop up around there – the exact date when it first appeared, as is often the case with everyday food, remains a mystery.

Chips are almost certainly an invention of Continental Europe, most likely being either Belgian or French (hence “French fries”). One anecdote has it that they were the invention of a poor Belgian housewife who cut potatoes up to resemble battered whitebait in order to hide their crushing poverty. Dundee claims that their city was the first place in Britain where chips could be found. Chips would certainly appear to be a Northern invention, though whether that far north – sorry to keep doing this to you – is disputed.

So, all we know about fish and chips, really, is that they appeared together in the mid-19th century. We don’t know when fried fish arrived here or chips, we don’t know for sure when they were first sold together and we can’t be sure of the whens and whos behind each ingredient. I’m going to favour the idea that Malin’s was the first fish and chip shop, if only because I can’t justify this entry otherwise.

What we can be pretty sure of, though, is that neither fish nor chips are British, but that serving them together is. So in that sense, could it not be argued that this British adaptation of foreign food has no more right to be regarded as a “British” dish than chicken tikka masala? Or, put more positively, doesn’t chicken tikka masala have just as much right to be the British national dish?

Yr. Humble Chronicler, being a fellow of simple tastes, is a great enthusiast for the delights of a well-cooked fish supper. Keep your parmo and your deep-fried Mars bars, sir. Although I’ll have some mushy peas if you’d be so good. Hell, I never used my arteries anyway.

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2 Comments

Filed under 19th century, East End and Docklands, Food, History, London, Rambling on and on

2 responses to “Frying Tonight

  1. mumfie

    The term ‘french fries’ refers to the potatoes being frenched, an Americanism meaning cutting to matchstick size whereas we use the French term julienne.

    The Belgians put their invention of frites at 1781 http://www.frites.be/v4/index.cfm?context=article&ContentID=354 (in French) with the same story you quote

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