Friday Night Delight/Fright: Fish n’Chips

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.

Fish n’Chips with Mushy Peas, + Tartar and Curry Sauces (serves 2-3)

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
Tartar Sauce
 – 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
Curry Sauce
 – 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
Fish Recipe
– 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
Chips Recipe
– 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!

37 thoughts on “Friday Night Delight/Fright: Fish n’Chips

  1. Oh yes! I have been lusting for fish ‘n’ chips this for a long time now. But I suspect that home-cooked is never the full on experience as going to the chippy. Now I wonder where I can find some malt vinegar in Lleida…
    Time for a visit to blighty methinks.

  2. Chris – that is Branston. My wife finds English labelling hilarious and old-fashioned, so she lined up a bunch of UK jarred foods from our fridge door for fun. You’ll also notice that instead of newspaper we ripped some pages from the local phone book, which is even more ridiculous. There’s a recipe out there in webland that i came across for make your own malt vinegar, but I think a short trip (for you) to the UK, might be easier. And, the home made version is pretty satisfying, though the smell of a chippy can (and should) never be recreated at home – even if you have beef tallow, so the experience is different. But, if you pick a cold, wet windy day and go outside for a walk, a home made fish dinner is very rewarding!

    TS – beef tallow is the lick. chips don’t taste the same without it. pea wet is a specialty of England’s NW and is magnificent when it mixes in the bottom of your chip tray with the vinegar and extra oil from the chips.

    Julia – curry sauce is the best. just chips smothered in curry sauce (to me) is a great meal. not nutritionally complete, but delicious!

  3. I love this post.
    and this Jew had no idea that it had any roots in the tribe!
    That will certainly shock our Irish pals!

    There is a great restaurant in Jersey City (we are going tonight!) called Lighthorse Tavern, they have the very BEST fish and chips that we have ever eaten & great Belgian beer on tap (you know Henry will order the fish & chips, I will get the tuna tartare tasting trio!).
    But that’s just one girl’s opinion.
    Meet us there tonight!

  4. I’ve never heard of mushy peas before but they intrigue me. I wonder if I could get my little ones to eat peas if I served them this way? Is this like a dip or is it just a side dish? Intriguing….

  5. oh stacey – i wish we could meet you! sounds like a fun night out AND a tuna tartare tasting trio!? hell yeah i’m there.

    joie de vivre: hi!! Thanks for the comment and question. I TOTALLY think this could be an EXCELLENT way to get the kids to eat peas. in fact, i am going to remember this idea when i’m a mother one day! It’s not a dip… it’s actually pretty thick since you usually don’t add that much liquid. Add a bit of butter and mint in there and there is no way a kid wouldn’t eat that! give it a try and let us know what happened.

  6. Thank you so much for stopping by my blog. This is my first time here and I really really like it! Looking forward to stopping by NY and trying some of the wonderful food you talk about. 🙂

  7. Great read and fantastic recipe as well. You really do your homework before writing a post. Now, is it wrong to crave Fish & Chips at 10:45am on a saturday morning? 🙂

  8. I love the food anthropology at the start. And I’m totally jealous of people who live within range of so many different cuisines. Northeast Ohio is not known for its authentic ethnic eating.

  9. Friday is always the Fish & Chips day for the British… I think the best (and less disgusting) Fish & Chips I have ever had was in Australia. Also, I am new to the mushy peas… I haven’t tried!!

  10. Man, this is a post on Fish n chips for the ages – such detail! (love the mushy peas)…It’s funny about your comment on the UK and Halloween. I ran into some Brits last night at an H’o’ween party and they were telling me how it was so frowned upon in the UK…They were having the best time of everyone!

  11. Now come on! Where’s the Heinz Tomato Sauce??!!! I’ll be needing that to dip my chips into……………..
    Fabulous post – except for the Branston Pickle – I must be one of the only people here in the UK that is frightened by it!!

  12. Oh this was so interesting. I like your tartar sauce recipe. And I did not know that about matzoh and fish, but you have given me an idea for the next time I make Petrale sole, I usually use panko, but I am going to try matzoh meal. I’ll let you know how it goes.

  13. There is no shame in Branston pickle. In fact, I would suggest that although most people would use it with curry, a good Plowman’s Lunch would be remiss without some BP on the plate next to your Mowbray.

    Your fish and chips looks delightful!! I’m a big fan of the mushy peas.

  14. This is the most gorgeous and delicious looking dish of fish n chips I have EVER seen! OMG! I’m making this for the bloke this week! He will die of yummy convulsions! Thanks so much for the recipe 🙂

  15. The Friday Night Fish Fry is a cultural institution in small-town America, as well. Minus the peas.

    We had the largest potato harvest ever from our garden this year, and I have to restrain myself from making fries every night. YUM.

  16. Great read on the origins of fish & chips. A once very Anglo Toronto had shops all over, now one has to go on a scouting mission.

    The batter looks fab (most important) and I’d opt for good ole’ tartar sauce, thanks mate!

  17. George – thanks for your comment. I agree that if we’re being strict, there would be no place for anything other than the trinity you describe, but I cannot agree that curry sauce from the chippy is disgusting. As good as the homemade version we made was, it’s not a patch on the slightly synthetic tasting, yellowish brown goo you get at the chip shop. I associate it with being a kid and with splitting a battered sausage with my mum. What can I say? i will always love it even if it’s full of stabilizers and preservatives.

    Margaret – Agreed on the ketchup, but frightened of Branston? that’s just too bad. my life would be difficult sometimes without branston, that said, I don’t put it on my chips, but I know people who do.

    Tina – you’re right, a plowman’s would not be complete without at least one kind of sweet pickle. Strangely, I have never come across people eating branston as a chutney with curry, but why not? that’s exactly what it is, even though i can really only associate it with cheese, crusty brown bread and a pint of bitter.

    chemcookit/drew kime/haley w. – welcome. thanks for your comments and for visiting.

    everyone – thanks for the kind words, as always. we enjoy finding out why we’re eating what we’re eating, and where the recipe is from. I’ve eaten fish n’chips all my life growing up in the UK and never wondered. All of a sudden, i’m in America and learning more about UK food traditions than I ever knew!

  18. Ha ha! Thanks for the back story. I was wondering why you served “guacamole” with fish and chips!!! I do love a GOOD fish and chips and will have to try yours. I haven’t ever tried to make it myself yet.

  19. Nice post, but I have to admit, as a ‘Brit’ (in this case from Scotland) I was a bit puzzled on reading the bit about Halloween never having ‘caught on’ in the UK. It is actually a Celtic festival (Samhain) in Scotland and Ireland and most likely taken over to the States by immigrants from here. I dont know about England but our children in Scotland are out guising (you call it trick or treating?) every year. So yes, its still celebrated.
    Can I add a little extra? A fish supper in England consists of fish chips and mushy peas,(and to my horror, when visiting my sister, her local chippie served the fish with the skin still on!) in Scotland its fish chips and a pickled onion, if you’re on the West coast the chips are doused in vinegar and if you’re on the East coast sauce. Peculiarisms eh?

  20. Excellent post. Was looking around for details on methods and ideas on chip preparation. Brilliant history and great recipes and pics! Was helping an Irish friend move yesterday and got into discussion on finding/making Irish chips. Going to go after making some curry chips this evening for the Irish friend and others. Thanks for the inspirations.

  21. @Ann: Thanks for your comment. Regional peculiarisms indeed. Certainly, Halloween is much bigger in England now than it ever was when I was a nipper, having been fairly successfully exported back over from America. I had heard about Halloweens’ Celtic origins and the traditional carving of turnips instead of pumpkins or other large gourds. It all sounds very witches, cauldrons and Macbeth-esque!
    Definitely with a heavy dousing of malt vinegar and salt on my fish and chips but pickled onions? Really? Maybe it’s not all that odd, my granddad used to enjoy pickled eggs and chips with HP sauce which, while it actually tates pretty good, looks revolting.

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