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Every country has a national dish, and for England, it’s fish and chips. Writer Cat Allen extols its virtues and shares a bit of the history – and a recipe – for the greasy, filling comfort food.
Text and Photos by: Cat Allen

ngland has a varied reputation when it comes to food. The words “hearty,” “filling” and “not particularly healthy” certainly come to mind. However, despite the calories, and dishes often not the most adventurous when it comes to flavour, British cuisine is still popular around the world. British “pubs” and themed restaurants can be found from Canada to the islands of Thailand, with chefs trying to replicate the well-known favourites, including pastry-encrusted meat pies, sausage and mashed potato, and of course, the famous battered fish and chips.

For many years fish and chips has been considered the national dish of England, the meal the country is best known for and its most loved cuisine. Practically every village, town and city in England is home to at least one fish-and-chip shop, affectionately known as “the chippy”. Supposedly there are around 10,000 of them in the country, some of which have adopted entertaining and cheesy names such as “The Codfather” (the most traditional type of fish to use is cod) and “Oh My Cod”.

The cuisine dates back as far as the 16th century, when the Spanish introduced frying the fish as opposed to boiling or cooking on open fire. Supposedly the first fish-and-chip shop opened in London in 1860, although there are also reports of others opening earlier in the north of England.

During the Second World War, fish and chips were some of the foods that weren’t rationed in England. Before, during, and even after the war, fish and chips remained popular, especially amongst poorer, working-class people due to its affordable price tag and filling qualities. It’s a stable part of the nation’s diet. The cuisine has smoothly moved into the 21st century and is no longer a mere fast-food takeaway option – “posh” and gourmet versions of the dinner can be found in gastro-pubs and fancy restaurants up and down the country. Most English cookbooks feature a recipe for do-it-yourself fish and chips.

Other fish-and-chips facts:

● Fish and chips was traditionally eaten on a Friday, when the Catholic Church encouraged people to abstain from eating meat. These days it is a firm favourite for lunch, dinner or even after a big night out.

● Brits spend a reported £1.2 billion every year on fish and chips.

● For many years fish and chips was traditionally wrapped-up in old newspaper. Using newspaper was banned for health and safety reasons in the 1980s, although it is still remembered fondly today. Some chippies even use “faux” newspaper to keep up the tradition, whilst others use waxed paper. Less popular for environmental reasons is the use of polystyrene packaging.

● The well-known and widely used quote “yesterday’s news is tomorrow’s chip paper” was featured in Elvis Costello ’s song “Fish and Chip Paper” and has been used ever since when comforting someone and reminding them that most things that happen will soon be forgotten, or any public news will soon be used to wrap up fish and chips.

The most traditional fish to use is cod, although due to overfishing problems and strict regulations, the price of cod has risen dramatically. As a result, many places offer alternatives such as haddock, plaice and hake on their menus. You can expect to pay anywhere from £3 for a small piece of fish with a portion of chips, depending, of course, on where in the country you are and how big the portions are.

Once you have ordered your fish and chips in a chippy, the paper is laid out, and a huge pile of hot, fried, and greasy chips are placed, followed by a hot, battered, and greasy piece of fish. Once you have been served, the server will ask, “salt and vinegar?” If you agree, table salt and malt vinegar will then be liberally applied to your food.

For many culinary dishes, the decisions would now be over and you would be happily unwrapping the steaming package and tucking into your food, but not so with fish and chips. A nightmare for the indecisive among us, you now have more decisions to make: whether to indulge in optional side portions such as mushy peas (literally peas mashed up to a creamy consistency), gravy (a thick, brown sauce traditionally eaten with meat, but widely loved as an accompaniment to chips, particularly in the north of England) or the popular curry sauce (a mildly spiced dip). Further condiments available include tartar sauce (a lemony sauce with gherkins and a mayonnaise base) and tomato ketchup.

The plethora of options for your fish and chips makes the dish a rather personal affair. I have my own special preferences that have been finely tuned over the years. They vary depending on my mood, level of hunger, my budget and the weather. I do, however, always like lots of vinegar on both my fish and chips–until the paper is soggy. I will sometimes have mushy peas on the side and always with ketchup. My favourite place to eat them is on the seafront on a cold wintry day. Perfection.

Here’s how other Brits like their fish and chips: “Always with mushy peas.” “Salt and vinegar is a must. And curry sauce. Done deal.” “No fish as I am a (vegetarian). I like salt and vinegar with tomato sauce. Also some bread to make a chip buttie [a sandwich made with chips]. Now I’m hungry!” “There can’t be too much batter-to-fish ratio.” “Vinegar on first so that more salt sticks on the chips!” “The sign of the good ones is that you don’t feel too greased out afterwards. When it says ‘cooked to order,’ it is generally well worth the wait!” “Personally I like vinegar and pepper, although you usually can’t find pepper in fish and chip shops–it is always salt. Chips, walking along the beach, with pepper and vinegar are the best for me.” “The smell as you walk past a chippy.”

Unfortunately for chippies across the country, the surge in healthier eating over the last few years has reduced sales in fish and chips. But fish and chips contains fewer calories than pizza, curry and other takeaway options such as burgers. Depending on how fresh the oil used for the fish is, and of course how large a portion you eat, fish and chips does provide a great source of protein, iron and vitamins.

Here is a great fish-and-chip recipe for you to enjoy.

Make Fish and Chips for 2.

3 cups of vegetable or canola oil
2 large fillets of white, flaky fish. Ask your fishmonger for one that can withstand frying.
3 large potatoes

For the batter:
1 cup of self-raising flour
½ teaspoon of sea salt
1 cup of beer
½ cup of water (fizzy if you have it)

Cut your potatoes lengthwise into evenly-sized pieces. Oven cooking the chips isn’t strictly traditional, but certainly a healthier option. Without a deep-fat fryer, you are unlikely to get the exact results of a British chippy.

Boil the potatoes in water for three minutes and drain well. Place on a large oven tray and drizzle oil and a little salt on top, place in a pre-heated oven,250C for a fan oven and gas mark 9,for 20-25 minutes, giving them a shake halfway through.

Meanwhile, mix the ingredients for the batter into a bowl. Place your oil into a deep pan and start heating. Take your fillets of fish and dip them into the batter, making sure that batter has covered the fish completely. Remove the fish, and once the oil is hot enough, place into the oil, ensuring it is submerged. Wait until the fillets are golden and brown, usually about four to five minutes.

Add your optional salt, vinegar, mushy peas, ketchup, tartar sauce, curry sauce and/or bread.



The Joy of Fish and Chips

England is not famous for its food. Its food is hearty and filling and not particularly healthy, yet it is found in British “pubs” and themed restaurants throughout the world. The most famous British dish is “fish and chips,” often considered the national dish of England.

The dish was introduced to England in the 16th century by the Spanish, who fried fish instead of boiling it or cooking it over an open fire. Fish and chips was traditionally eaten on a Friday, when the Catholic Church encouraged people to abstain from eating meat. But today it is eaten for lunch, dinner, or even a big night out.

The first fish and chips shop supposedly opened in London in 1860, although there are reports of shops opening earlier in the north of England. The shops are affectionately known as “chippies” and have entertaining names such as “The Codfather” and “Oh my cod”. Cod is the most traditional type of fish to use.

When you order a plate of fish and chips, first the paper is laid out, then a large pile of hot, fried, greasy chips are placed on top, followed by a hot, battered, greasy piece of fish. But you’re not finished yet, you can then put salt and vinegar on your dish and you also have the option of various sides such as mushy peas (literally peas mashed up to a creamy consistency), gravy (a thick, brown sauce traditionally eaten with meat) or curry sauce (a mildly spiced dip). No matter how you eat them, they will always be delicious.



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