I never fail to smile when I think of fish and chips being described as one of Great Britain's national dishes. It seems beautifully appropriate that a nation with a heritage as rich, varied, and far-reaching as Britain's should adopt food introduced by immigrants as one of its culinary identifiers.
Oh yes, fish and chips, that quintessentially British dish, is immigrant food.
The story starts in 1492, on the Iberian Peninsular, when Ferdinand and Isabella expel the Jewish population from their kingdoms. The exiles might not be able to take much with them in the form of property or wealth, but as with any migrant people, they do carry with them their traditions, one of which is fried fish.
Sephardi Jewry and their fish-frying ways don't immediately reach English shores, however. England is openly hostile towards migrants throughout the sixteenth century, and instead those who fled from Spain and Portugal, along with their descendants, make for the Netherlands, North Africa, Italy, and Turkey. It's not until the mid-seventeenth century, when Cromwell decides that admitting Jewish traders might be good for the economy, that fried fish lands in London.
Have a peek in Oliver Twist and Judith Cohen Montefiore's 1846 The Jewish Manual, and you will find references to and recipes for fried fish. Dickens mentions a fried fish warehouse in London's East End, where fish would have been served with bread or baked potatoes, and Cohen Montefiore's recipe is basically the same as how my grandmother fries her fish now: coated in egg and then dredged with either flour or monster meal and dropped into hot oil.
The origins of chips are slightly more obscure. Some think that the chip's origin is French, whilst others state it to be Belgian, and invented as a substitute for fish when the rivers had frozen over in the winter.
Wikipedia would have it that the first chipped, fried potatoes sold in the UK were served in Oldham in 1860. However, I can't find any evidence to support that statement, so make of it what you will.
But the next question, of course, is who thought to marry chips with fish and douse them in salt and vinegar?
If you're a northern soul, you might support that it was one John Lees, of Lancashire, who first sold fish and chips in 1863. For those south of the Watford Gap, Joseph Malin and his East End fish and chip shop dating to around 1860 might be the preferred option. Whoever it was, and wherever they were, they'd cottoned on to a bright idea. By 1910 there were approximately 25,000 fish and chip shops in the UK. During both World Wars, the governments went to extraordinary measures to ensure that fish and chips remained the only unrationed takeaway food. It was seen as morale-boosting and vital to the nation.
We don't eat nearly so much fish and chips now as we did back in the early twentieth century. There are roughly 10,000 fish and chip shops in the UK and it is fifth on the list of favourite takeaways. But at 229 million portions a year — mostly cod, but haddock and plaice, too — that's still quite a bit.
I don't eat fish and chips so much, but when I do, I drown it in vinegar and always have mushy peas. Mostly, I tend to fry fish myself, on a Friday night, much the same as my grandfather told me that his mother did in her huge cast iron pan on the range of her East End kitchen to eat over Shabbat. You carry your traditions with you.
Open or wrapped?