Fish and chips are the archetypal British fast food and I love them. Following on from the debate about Hoppin’ John I was trying to think of a really good British equivalent. Deep fried potato accompanied by deep-fried white fish probably fits the bill – especially when you have to add your own seasoning!
There is no way I would order something in a restaurant described literally in this way. Let’s face it, fish and chips isn’t the taste sensation – we’ve got to add a load of salt, vinegar, ketchup and tartar sauce. But when we do it is quite wonderful because we have a deep-seated memory and affection for it… I wouldn’t order it on description but I regularly do based on memories and still enjoy it.
Fish and chips meant cod and chips when I was growing up. Haddock was the optional posh choice. Even the haddock and cod shortages which has resulted in the appearance of tilapia as a major fish in the UK and other, cheaper, substitutes have not dampened the appetite. A recent survey of British fish and chip shops by the Daily Mail declared that one in six ‘cod or haddock’ was actually a cheaper substitute – most often whiting. There couldn’t be a clearer demonstration that we don’t actually care about the finer details of how the dish tastes or what is in it – it’s associated with years of happy memories and what we love is the idea of fish and chips. Anyone reading this who isn’t from Britain will just not get what the fuss is all about and why fish and chip shops are in every British town and line every coastal resort.
Like Hoppin’ John the culinary attraction of the dish is in chips which have a crispy outer and a fluffy inner without being too greasy. It is in fish which is white as snow, piping hot and in large flakes cocooned in thin crisp batter. Freshness of cooking and quality of fish are the two main determining factors. There may be variations in batter recipes, the fluid which is used for the deep fat frying, and methods of cooking the chips but there is quite a narrow track to take the basic recipe down. Young lads like me could ask for a bag of scraps for 1d back in the day and receive a small bag of the bits of batter left in the corners of the heated counter before running off the ill-effects with a game of street football with a tennis ball. Over the years chip shops have tried to increase the interest and attract a new generation with garlic sauce, ‘curry’ sauce, cheese, or chip spice over the top of the chips, side dishes of mushy peas or baked beans, and accompaniments of pickled eggs, onions, or gherkins. All of these completely dominate the quite delicate underlying but potentially bland flavours. They’ve tried to avoid those who don’t like fish by adding all manner of other things into the deep fat fryers – sausages, saveloys, potato scallops, fish cakes, spring rolls and, infamously, Mars bars and pizzas as well as microwaving a pie if you would prefer.
To season the fish and chips we have a large bottle of malt vinegar and even this varies in colour by region, and an infeasible large salt container. Connoisseurs have a method of splitting the batter to get the salt in and overcoming the challenge of chip shops putting a weighty slab of fish on top of the mound of chips. The less thoughtful will put the salt on first and then wash it all off with an injudicious squirt of malt vinegar.
There is even a ritual with the serving of the meal. It used to be a large stack of yesterday’s newspaper that it used to be wrapped in with the chips cosseted in a small shallow grease-proof bag designed specifically for the purpose. Now there is typically plain squares of paper with a grease-proof sheet on top. More recently are the polystyrene trays which seemed to appear with the American fast food outlets. All of this is configured in different ways depending on whether you want it wrapped or “open”. Open used to mean exactly that. Somehow the newspaper was folded to create a ouch you could carry and eat from rather than just looking like you were reading a really greasy, tattered copy of yesterday’s Evening Gazette – it was my first exposure to origami! There days ‘open’ seems to be a closed polystyrene box but without the outer paper wrapping.
Whatever happens to it – health scares, shortages, legislation or the economy – your everyday chippy will survive because of what it represents to British people. My own favourite fish and chips is a location rather than any particular outlet – sitting on the harbour of just about any Northern fishing port (probably Bridlington and Whitby come to mind) – with a piping, mouth-burningly, hot open bag of fish and chips well salted with plenty of vinegar and an ironic can of chilled diet coke to wash it down with.