Happy Hallowe’en, WANF readers! Instead of posting shots of us dressed up in costume as the tastiest parts of a pig’s anatomy, we’re celebrating All Soul’s Day and the arrival of a much-needed weekend with a classic Friday night dish from the British Isles (where in truth, Hallowe’en has never really caught on in the way it has here in America) – fish n’chips.
Note: prepare for a very long read or click here to skip forward to the recipe.
In the same way that there is probably some truth in the Chinese claim to have invented the noodle that became the ubiquitous Italian pasta, the origins of the archetypical British dish of fish n’chips seems to stem from Sephardic Jewish and French Protestant immigrants to the UK. In the mid-18th century, fishing trawlers became large enough to catch significant numbers of North Sea bottom-feeding white fish and domestic railroads expanded so that much of the UK began to have cheap and regular access to this fresh bounty. Also at this time, the potato-cooking skills of French Hugenot immigrants and the fish-frying traditions of Southern European Jews came together in what was to be a lasting and wildly popular marriage.
The French fry had been invented years earlier when the poor had first ventured to cook this new world tuber - originally only thought good enough for animal feed – and these techniques have continued to be refined to this day. Jews immigrating to the UK and other areas of Northern Europe having been expelled from Portugal and Spain brought matza (matzo, matzoh, matsah,) with them, which they knew to be an excellent coating for fish when ground or crumbed. Combining these two techniques with the endemic British passion for beer and deep-frying, resulted in one of the most famous exports from the British Isles since limey sailors began spreading a horrifying variety of VDs in port cities the world over.
Today’s fish n’chips (depending on where you go) still closely resemble the original ideas found in Portuguese fried fish dishes pescado frito, in which strips of fish are dunked in a light batter of water, matzo flour and salt, then rolled in crumbed matzo before deep-frying in a cauldron of hot oil. In fact, the Portuguese are sometimes credited with having introduced this technique to Japan where it developed into the extremely delicious tempura style. In the UK, beer was often added in place of water to the flour (typically plain flour nowadays, rather than matzo) and salt, with the resulting batter being richer, but somehow lighter, frothier and more golden colored.
The British habit of “chipping” potatoes into larger batons than the continental Europeans, and now the Americans, and only frying them once, appears to just be a local habit. Some have suggested that the UK picked up on an early potato-cooking technique and kept it while the more culinarily-advanced French and Belgians continued to experiment with thinner-cut potatoes and double-frying, so that they perfected the golden and crunchy frites of today. I prefer to think of the British technique to be based not on ignorance, but on textural appreciation. For why have a crispy deep-fried fish and pair it with something else crispy? Why not pair it with something softer and more unctious?
My Life with Fish n’Chips
Anyway, fish n’chips became incredibly popular in the UK and its colonies around the world, with the chip shop still a fixture on virtually every town’s high street in the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. For much of my youth, growing up in provincial England, it was one of only two choices for cheap, take-away/out food – the other being the uniformly foul and greasy hole that was the Golden Lantern Chinese take-out, so fish n’chips played an important role in our Friday night social traditions. After choir practice at our local church, we’d often hit the chip shop for a “slap-up” dinner of cod & chips with mushy peas, and bread & scrape (sliced white bread with lard), all washed down with our weekly soda allowance – a can of Lilt (a pineapple and grapefruit flavored soda).
Mr. Chips, the snappily-titled chip shop in my Cheshire town was universally known as just “the chippy” and, correspondingly - demonstrating some terribly enlightened feelings towards the town’s tiny, but most obvious, ethnic population - the Golden Lantern, was referred to as “the Chinky”. Subsequently, this ordinary little town has gentrified virtually beyond recognition, with all manner of ethnic restaurants elbowing aside these two bastions of atherosclerosis. However, echoes of these former times can still be heard in local parlance. Sadly, the Golden Lantern is gone, replaced by Slow Boat and Treasure Village, which now, demonstrating how times have changed for the better, are referred to as “the Chinese”; Mughli, an Indian restaurant, is either ”the curry house” or “the Indian”, and Est! Est! Est! is “the Italian”.
Fish n’chip restaurants still play a significant role in British gastronomic and cultural life. As with many countries, the UK has recently undergone a revolution in its food traditions, returning to basics and local ingredients and striving for sustainability. This has led to a re-evaluation and revival of many traditional dishes, including the hugely devalued fish n’chips. With North Sea cod stocks (like cod almost everywhere) having crashed due to overfishing, some traditions have had to change, and now other white fish are used including hake, halibut and haddock in its place, but the typical methods of beer and matzo batter, quality malt vinegar, fine sea salt and first-class British potatoes cooked in beef tallow (beef lard) are emerging again, much to my delight.
We’re heading to London to visit my new nephew in a couple of weeks, and will be hitting up arguably the finest chip shop in the capital, Fryer’s Delight in Holborn, which you will be the first to hear about right here in these pages. To date though, the best fish n’chips I ever had was at a very dodgy-looking chippy in Fleetwood, Lancashire (NW England, about 1.5hrs north of Manchester). Overlooking the grey and miserable-looking Irish Sea, I ate perfectly fried, golden cod, soft and salty chips and deliciously thick marrowfat mushy peas. It was a glorious, all-English experience.
But don’t think that fish n’chips only comes with mushies – oh no, variations abound in dressings. While the traditional is the simple sea salt and malt vinegar with a side of tartar sauce and M.P’s, others include, parsley sauce, brown gravy, curry sauce, garlic sauce, piccalilli, mayonnaise, Henderson’s relish, Worcestershire sauce, pea wet or pea’s water (liquid strained from peas during the creation of mushy peas) which is often free, baked beans, cheese or cheese curds, coleslaw, ketchup, chilli sauce, thousand island dressing, salad cream, chip spice, brown sauce, and summer savory (turkey stuffing & gravy), to name but a few.
Ever striving for the traditional in our take on the dish, we went with a pale ale batter, beautiful Atlantic cod (yes, i know it’s unsustainable, but our fishmonger doesn’t sell haddock or hake) thick cut chips, homemade mushy peas, homemade tartar sauce and, perhaps excessively, homemade curry sauce – my wife being a huge fan of dipping sauces. In fact, all of them are fiendishly easy to make, but as with most simple dishes, the key is high quality ingredients. Old potatoes and a shitty piece of fish even when perfectly fried will still taste like a turd. Similarly, beautifully fresh potatoes and cod fried in rancid old oil will be a disaster. Make sure you buy everything as fresh as possible. Fresh potatoes have very few “eyes” and yield a nice sheen of liquid when peeled, and fresh cod or haddock (hake is fine also) will have wonderfully shiny skin and nice firm flesh. If it’s already flaky and soft do not buy it, instead sharply reprimand your fishmonger for having the temerity to sell such tat.
|Ingredients for Fish n’ Chips
- 1lb skinless cod fillet
- 1pint, pale ale (don’t worry if you can’t find a British one, America makes excellent beer these days)
- 2/3 cup plain flour, or matzo flour
- 1 whole egg
- 2lbs yukon gold (maris piper in UK)potatoes, peeled and cut into finger-sized chips
- 3-4 cups vegetable or peanut oil, unless by amazing chance, beef tallow is available.
- 2 tsp kosher, or fine sea salt
- 1 tsp malt vinegar
|Ingredients for Mushy Peas, Tartar & Curry Sauces
- 1lb package frozen green peas
- 1/2 stick unsalted butter
- 1 pint cold water
- 1 pinch kosher salt
- 4tbsp mayonnaise
- 2tsp lemon juice
- 4 olives, stones removed, chopped finely
- 4 cornichons (baby pickles), chopped finely
- 3tsp capers, chopped finely
- 1/4 onion, minced
- 1/2onion finely diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tbsp chutney or 1tbsp minced ginger + 1/2 apple, peeled, cored and minced
- 3tsp curry powder
- 2 tsp plain flour
- 1tsp granulated sugar
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 6 tbsp ketchup/tomato sauce
- 1 good pinch kosher salt
-1 cup chicken stock or water
- mix beer, flour and beaten egg together with a whisk until well combined
- add 1 pinch kosher salt
- allow batter to “improve” in fridge for a couple of hours
- heat oil in your largest deep pan to 350 – 375F (we used a wok and it worked perfectly)
- pat fish dry with paper towels and dredge thoroughly in batter
- deep-fry until golden brown and crispy all over
- remove and drain excess oil on paper towels. serve immediately
- pat dry sliced potatoes
- cook in 350-375F oil until golden brown, 4-7 mins(always cook chips first, or they’ll taste fishy)
- remove and drain excess oil on paper towels, sprinkle remaining salt
- serve immediately with malt vinegar to taste
|Mushy Peas Recipe
- boil frozen peas with water and salt until very soft, 10-12 minutes
- mash with masher until mostly smooth, but some peas remain bashed but mostly intact
- add butter and stir until smooth.
- allow to amalgamate before serving. Do not serve hot. Mushies should be lukewarm.
|Curry Sauce Recipe
- saute onions and apple until soft (if using chutney, just onions)
- add curry and flour, stir well to combine
- then add tomato puree (ketchup), ginger, cinnamon, sugar and chutney, and stir again.
- simmer in stock, stirring occasionally, for 20-30 mins or until thick and delicious.
|Tartar Sauce Recipe
- combine all finely chopped ingredients in bowl with mayonnaise
- allow to sit and improve for at least two hours, pref. overnight
- enjoy as the perfect side to fish n’chips!