Though it’s hard to imagine having the fish without the chips nowadays, they actually started as separate dishes. Fried fish was first brought here by Jewish immigrants in the 17th century and quickly became popular. It’s likely that chips appeared around the same time; Charles Dickens even referenced a “fried fish warehouse” in Oliver Twist, published in 1839, and “chips potatoes, fried,” in his 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Although there’s some debate, one of the first official chip shop was established in 1860 in Oldham’s Tommyfield Market, a site that has been marked by a blue plaque.
No one is quite certain where these two were first sold together. Joseph Malin, a Jewish immigrant in East London, might have opened the first fish-and-chip shop in 1860, or perhaps the honour goes to John Lees, who operated a fish-and-chip hut at Lancashire’s Mossley Market in 1863. Regardless of who’s responsible, the concept quickly took off with shops springing up across the country. According to the National Federation of Fish Friers, there were about 25,000 shops by 1910. This proliferation of chippies was helped by the developments in trawl fishing and railways–not only was there a regular supply of fish, but it could also be transported around the country whilst still fresh.
Fish and chips is usually made with white fish, most commonly cod or haddock. However many chippies will serve a variety of fish, including rock, plaice and pollock. The fillets are coated in flour then dipped into a batter made of water and flour—and sometimes beer—and then they’re then deep-fried in oil. The chips are thick-cut rather than thin French fries, and they’re also cooked in hot oil—not the most nutritionally balanced meal going, but it sure does taste good.
Wrapping the fish and chips in old newspapers was standard practice, as it helped keep the price down. This continued until 30 years ago when it was ruled unsafe for food to directly touch newspaper ink. You’ll often find it served in paper printed to look like newspapers in homage to this custom.
Brits are also fiercely protective about how fish and chips is best served, and this tends to differ across the country. Some people prefer cod to haddock; some like salt and vinegar on their chips and want mushy peas or pickled onions on the side. Scraps, crunchy bits of fried batter, are also popular up North, as is curry sauce. Restaurants often serve the dish with tartare sauce.
Not only is fish and chips one of Britain’s most famous exports, known around the world as a quintessentially British dish, it actually had a part to play in keeping the nation going through two world wars. During World War I, the government made sure supplies never ran out in an effort to help keep morale up. During World War II, the ingredients were among the few not subjected to rationing. Winston Churchill even dubbed the dish “the good companions.” In The Road to Wigan Pier, which documents working class life in the North, George Orwell notes that fish and chips was one of the “home comforts” that helped to keep the masses happy and stave off revolution.
Fish and chips is woven into our history and remains an important cultural touchstone for expats. It really is the taste of home.