British Classic #8: Fish and Chips, our pretend National Dish

Are there any other nations that deep-fry their national dish? 


Fish and chips ARE Britain. It is, along with a plate of pink roast beef and fluffy Yorkshire pudding, the food which the majority of visitors to the UK want to sample first upon arrival.  So, let’s explore why. A little theatre of the mind now…

It is a crisp, clear and starry night, with a biting wind trying its best to get into your collar and deaden your fingertips as you exit the cinema. The popcorn/Cornetto combination has made a temporary dent in your hunger, but now it returns with a vengeance as the sharp tang of hot vinegar mingles with the deeply savoury smell of hot oil and potatoes. You approach the brightly lit doorway, the only shop operating at this time of night in the high street, and join the queue. A high counter with a stainless steel and glass hot cupboard display a coterie of crispy, amber coloured treats, from palm-sized fishcakes to cricket bat cod fillets. The delicious and unique smell of this place is in part down to the beef dripping that they use in the fryer, a chip-shop secret since its inception in Victorian times. There are Land Of The Giants-style salt and vinegar shakers (i.e bloody gigantic…), the latter being full of the only vinegar allowed onto fish and chips; the mouth-puckeringly sharp and powerful Sarson’s Malt Vinegar. There are  jars of pickled onions and eggs,sometimes even a few jars of cockles and whelks, and the quintessential chipshop drink, the fizzy elixir known as Vimto.  Finally, you get your hands on your own warm parcel and head home or simply find a bench or comfy stretch of wall on which to unwrap your supper.  As with a perfect sausage sandwich, this dish is at its best when still slightly too hot to eat comfortably. The rich, vinegary savour is released as a puff of steam when the paper wrapper is unfolded, and the first breach of the crisp batter revealing thick, soft flakes of cod is a moment almost unmatched by any other meal in terms of pure satisfaction and comfort. 

That is why fish and chips are world famous. 

Now the sad reality. It is becoming almost impossible to find an old fashioned and honest chip shop. The simple genius of fine fresh fish battered and accompanied by local potatoes chipped and dropped into a deep vat of rendered beef fat is not enough any more, it seems. Nowadays you should expect to see  the slowly rotating elephants leg of a doner kebab grill, or perhaps burgers, some southern fried chicken slowly dessicating in a glass hot cupboard, perhaps? This dilution inevitably leads to less attention to the fish and chip part of the business offering – end result? Decidedly average to poor fish, coated in a powdered batter mix with about as much taste as an envelope, and poorly maintained fryers/laziness resulting in frankly rubbish chips that taste mildly burnt. Yum. Slowly but surely, this British legend is being blended with every other takeaway service on its street. A large contributor to this sea change (pun partially intended) is the shadowy spectre of sustainable codfish stocks. Atlantic cod at one point in recent history faced virtual extinction thanks to merciless and irresponsible over fishing. Things have changed considerably, and top quality sustainable cod is widely available albeit at a significantly higher price than before, but this is the price of respecting the population and breeding habits of edible species.  I serve the most beautiful Atlantic cod in my restaurant and it is undoubtedly worth every extra penny, as my customers will agree. But I digress. The simple fact I’m making is that the price of good cod has gone up, so most chip shops have moved into other areas and refused to pay for the good stuff. This is not always due to the meanness of owners, but more likely the wallet-conscious public baulking at the idea of a price hike for the good of their fish supper. It’s a crying shame.

Okay, soapbox away…Hey! You’re not here for a lecture, you’re here to find out what’s so good about British food! Let’s have a little journey around the isle…

Like a teenager, the British as a whole have an inbuilt craving for crisp, hot and salty foods submerged in hot oil. Arguably the best fish and chips in England at least come from the south coast, specifically Devon and Cornwall, but all coastal areas are lined with shops “frying tonight”. A general rule of thumb appears to be that the further north you go, the more deep fried things are available. The Durham cities of Middlesborough and Newcastle are the home of the calorific A-bomb known simply as a “Parmo”. Ready? A flattened chicken breast is coated in batter or crumb and fried, THEN topped with a white cheese sauce and a final topping of cheddar cheese, then it’s into a pizza oven, and then a takeaway box along with, naturally, chips. All I can say to my quite possibly shell shocked friends in egg white omelette, wheatgrass drinking California or similar places is…it’s very, VERY cold in the North East, and hot fat, salt and its inherent bursts of quick energy help when the moisture on your eyeballs wants to freeze. The people who make Kendal Mint Cake are in the same business. But I am leaving the best till last.

(Or should that be worst?)

The Scottish love the chippie like no other folk on the planet. Coincidentally, they love dying of heart disease too but we’ll gloss over that. This is a country that my previous diatribe doesn’t apply to, and the idea of a “fish supper”will live forever in the howlingly cold and bitter nights that Scots from Leith Walk to the Highlands experience. This time, the drink of choice is not Vimto, but it’s equally sweet cousin Irn-Bru (made in Scotland from Girrrrr-Derrrrrs, as the advert tells us). Got a food you like? In Scotland? Take it to the local chip shop, and they’ll batter and fry it for you, no questions asked. There is a huge list of successful and not-so successful fried experiments in Scottish chippies, the most famous being the deep-fried Mars Bar, an already sickly and rich concoction of caramel, nougat and chocolate. Battered, it becomes something beyond unhealthy, but the hit of sugar and hot fat is almost unmatchable. Ditto the deep-fried Cadburys Creme Egg, its filling of fondant making it akin to a crispy hard boiled egg filled with treacly cement. The competition was on with other, often poor quality junk foods being dipped in the batter jug and fried as an offering to the gods of cholesterol. An underground smash is the deep fried pizza. Yep, you heard right. A whole supermarket pizza, battered and fried. The food love that dares not speak its name indeed. All these variations are based on the same point: Scotland needs deep frying. Oh yes, and Freeeeeeedoooooooooom…

So I guess that is about it for a behemoth of a subject like Fish and Chips, I welcome a lot of comment on this one, from both home and abroad, not least because it has taken me so long to post. I can only apologise for my tardiness in updating the blog, and plead mercy for a chef in a very busy little pub that leaves me currently with almost no time for anything else. An in-progress draft of this post has been on my laptop for almost a month, and it is only now that I can finish it for publication. Rest assured that I still absolutely love writing these pieces, and I appreciate all who take a few minutes to read them. They will continue, I promise.




PS. I am aware of the existence in the US of the deep fried Twinkie. The only accompaniment I can suggest with this would be insulin. There was also an example of deep fried Coca-Cola, but that makes my teeth itch just thinking about it…

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5 Comments on “British Classic #8: Fish and Chips, our pretend National Dish”

  1. weathereye Says:

    One of the better things about the colonial experience here in Canada is the fish & chips shops. We have many here in my city, but one in particular offers the total British tradition, right down to the Sarson’s. It moved down the street last year, and strangely, the new location immediately seemed like it had been operating for decades.

    Jakob and Mandi and I had fish & chips in a gay Irish pub in Toronto a while ago. Pretty good, but it came on a plate, so the experience was slightly diminished.

    • croosh Says:

      See? The Commonwealth just keeps giving, doesn’t it? And as for the plate – time and a place, really. One of the things I meant to mention in the post was the fact that due to health regulations we no longer get our F & C’s wrapped in newspaper. Incidental, some may think, but the hot newsprint was like an extra seasoning, it really was. That and it meant you had something to read while you ate…

  2. cartbozman Says:

    Ah the Scottish link. One more delectation you ommited good sir is deep fried haggis.
    The first haggis I ever tasted was battered from an Edinburgh chip shop, smothered in brown sauce, it took my breath away. That and a can of Irn-bru and I was on heaven. Irn-bru in bonny Scotland is like guinness in Ireland, it is tainted once it passes the border.

    Great post, keep em coming. And I would love to sample your cooking one of these days.

    • croosh Says:

      …What is it with you and haggis, Boz?! Well there you go, justice has now been done for deep fried haggis. Incidentally, the deep fried pizzas are often folded over as a sandwich with a filling of brown sauce. I know, but I bet it’s secretly bloody nice.

      Oh, and if you ever roll into my joint? Guest of honour, no question. We’ve got some good-ass ales, too.

  3. Marius Says:

    We have some, albeit dwindling, places that serve a reasonable approximation of your piscene deliciousness. Arthur Treacher’s was a favorite haunt of my youth. Once again your prose makes me feel as if I’ve already dined on that which you describe. I can’t wait til my next opportunity to visit your country so I can gain a stone or two. 😉

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