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Page last updated at 15:02 GMT, Friday, 18 December 2009

The unlikely origin of fish and chips


How to make the perfect fish and chips

By James Alexander
BBC News

Fish and chips are a national institution - and now chippies across the country are preparing to celebrate the 150th birthday of our most famous fast food.

Winston Churchill called them "the good companions". John Lennon smothered his in tomato ketchup. Michael Jackson liked them with mushy peas.

They sustained morale through two world wars and helped fuel Britain's industrial prime.

Fish and chips
1910: c25,000
1929: c35,000
2009: c10,000
Sources: and Fish and Chips and the British Working Class, by John Walton

For generations, fish and chips have fed millions of memories - eaten with greasy fingers on a seaside holiday, a pay-day treat at the end of the working week or a late-night supper on the way home from the pub.

Few can resist the mouth-watering combination - moist white fish in crisp golden batter, served with a generous portion of hot, fluffy chips.

Everyone has their own preferences and tastes vary from one part of the country to another. Cod or haddock? Salt and vinegar? Pickled onion? Scraps?

Like Morecambe and Wise or Wallace and Gromit, fish and chips are a classic double act - and yet they started life as solo performers. And their roots are not as British as you might think.

The story of the humble chip goes back to the 17th Century to either Belgium or France, depending who you believe.

Oddly enough, the chip may have been invented as a substitute for fish, rather than an accompaniment. When the rivers froze over and nothing could be caught, resourceful housewives began cutting potatoes into fishy shapes and frying them as an alternative.

Around the same time, fried fish was introduced into Britain by Jewish refugees from Portugal and Spain.

The fish was usually sold by street sellers from large trays hung round their necks. Charles Dickens refers to an early fish shop or "fried fish warehouse" in Oliver Twist (1839) where the fish generally came with bread or baked potatoes.

North or south?

Who first had the bright idea to marry fish with chips remains the subject of fierce controversy and we will probably never know for sure. It is safe to say it was somewhere in England but arguments rage over whether it was up north or down south.

1. Burgers 748m
2. Chinese/Indian food 569m
3. Chicken 333m
4. Pizza 249m
5. Fried fish 229m
Source: NPD Crest market research, Oct 2009

Some credit a northern entrepreneur called John Lees. As early as 1863, it is believed he was selling fish and chips out of a wooden hut at Mossley market in industrial Lancashire.

Others claim the first combined fish 'n' chip shop was actually opened by a Jewish immigrant, Joseph Malin, within the sound of Bow Bells in East London around 1860.

However it came about, the marriage quickly caught on. At a time when working-class diets were bleak and unvaried, fish and chips were a tasty break from the norm.

Outlets sprung up across the country and soon they were as much a part of Victorian England as steam trains and smog.

Italian migrants passing through English towns and cities saw the growing queues and sensed a business opportunity, setting up shops in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

To keep prices down, portions were often wrapped in old newspaper - a practice that survived as late as the 1980s when it was ruled unsafe for food to come into contact with newspaper ink without grease-proof paper in between.

Morale booster

It has even been suggested that fish and chips helped win World War I.

According to Professor John Walton, author of Fish and Chips and the British Working Class, the government made safeguarding supplies a priority.

Cod 61.5%
Haddock 25%
Others (including hake, halibut, plaice, pollock, sole) 13.5%

"The cabinet knew it was vital to keep families on the home front in good heart," says Professor Walton. "Unlike the German regime that failed to keep its people well fed and that was one reason why Germany was defeated.

"Historians can sometimes be a bit snooty about these things but fish and chips played a big part in bringing contentment and staving off disaffection."

George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) put fish and chips first among the home comforts that helped keep the masses happy and "averted revolution".

During World War II, ministers bent over backwards to make sure fish and chips were one of the few foods that were never rationed.

These days, fish and chips are no longer king of the takeaway. Burgers, fried chicken, pizza, Indian and Chinese dishes all now outsell fried fish.

Cost is part of the problem. Strains on stocks of cod and haddock have pushed prices up, while health concerns about deep-fried food have turned many consumers away.

But - despite the recession - sales are rising, according to Seafish, the official authority on all things seafood. Their researchers reckon fish and chips are not as bad for us as many other takeaways, containing fewer calories and less fat.

'Tricks of the trade'

At the Leeds headquarters of the National Federation of Fish Friers, they say the downturn has boosted business as people seek "comfort food" in tough times.

The three-day course it runs for newcomers keen to join the profession has seen a doubling in demand for places. Here trainees can learn the tricks of the trade.

Among them is Bill Bradbury, who has travelled from Canada just to come on this course and get hands-on experience.

Friers in Leeds
Demand for training places in Leeds has doubled

Under the tutor's careful gaze, Bill tentatively lowers a carefully-battered fish into the hot chrome fryer. As it touches the bubbling oil, it sizzles furiously.

Bill was recently made redundant from a steel company in Alberta and is planning to sink his savings into a fish and chip shop back home.

"There's definitely a market for it. There's a big British army base nearby and loads of ex-pats who are desperate for a good chippy.

"Friends were all offering me money to come. They were saying 'please, it would be great if someone could make proper fish and chips.'"

The pupils break for lunch. No prizes for guessing what is on the menu.

There are smiles all round as super-sized bottles of salt and vinegar are passed from one student to another.

Bill grabs a small plastic fork and grins as he spears a hunk of golden haddock and a piping hot chip. A burst of steam rises as he tucks in: "Delicious."

A century and a half on, this great British staple still goes down a treat.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I live in a fresh fish port and I have to say that I now stick to the old adage of "never eat fish and chips when you can't see the sea". Having lived in inland Reading for a few years, I can attest to the truth in that. It's British food at its non-diet friendly best.
Kate, Scarborough

There used to be a fish & chip restaurant in Pahrump, Nevada (about 70 miles from Las Vegas) and the owner had imported a genuine fish frying range from Yorkshire. Although the fish & chips were excellent (admittedly we took our own pickled onions & mushy peas), they failed to catch on with the local population and although the restaurant survives it no longer sells fish & chips.
Mike Smith, Huntingdon, UK

I hail from Grimsby and all my late uncles etc were fishermen, and I do believe that Grimsby was the largest fishing port in the world, until various sanctions came into place and killed off what was a living for most residents. However, I do believe the chippies that remain in Grimsby and neighbouring town Cleethorpes do take a lot of beating when it comes to this wonderful dish, complete with mushy peas. Excellent, do try on your travels.
Patricia Hallard, Rochdale

Memories of mum sending us to the chippy on a Saturday for "one of each and a bag of chips with scraps". Why do they taste better outdoors? I love the regional variations. Mushy peas, fritters, black peas, saveloy. Nobody does it better than the north though.
Charlotte, York

Why can't you get fried batter bits in the South? It's like there's a line across the country and they stop being available somewhere in the Midlands. They liven up a chip butty brilliantly.
John C, London, UK

Obviously fish 'n' chips was created in the north. Just suppose what the name of said dish would have been had it been created in the south: Gently Fried Fish With an accompaniment of equally gently Fried Sliced Potatoes (with an optional seasoning of various condiments and/or sauces of varying colours, flavours and textures. Doesn't quite roll of the tongue does it?
Northerner, Yorkshire

I don't rate the fish 'n' chips in the UK. Everything sits around in the warmer for too long. In NZ, you place your order and it's cooked while you wait. No under-done chips, either. Best ever? From a caravan parked by a beach on the West Coast of the South Island, cooking what they'd hooked out the waves in front of you.
Ellen, Wellington, NZ

I don't know where it originated, but I live in London and it is practically impossible to get decent fish and chips. Even the supposed 'quality' end of the market is poor in my estimation. And they leave the skin on in the south, it's just wrong.
Philip Nichols, London

I live in Northampton, and like the gentleman who lives in London, you just can't get decent fish and chips here now, it's all soggy batter and grease. The best chips are sold at our local Chinese takeaway. The chip shop owner gets a bit grumpy about it when you just buy his fish and nip the the shop over the road to fetch the chips.
Janet, Northampton UK

The secret to good fish and chips is to cook them in beef dripping like some of the Yorkshire fish and chip shops still do. The problem with southern fish and chips is there's no passion, it's all cooked in vegetable oil and usually sold with pizzas, fried chicken even curry on the menu... jack of all trades, master of none...the taste is often bland and greasy.
Jack Hawthorne, Shrewsbury

I was once told by an old Mossley resident that initially potato chips were used to cool the fat in solid fuel powered fryers. They were given away with the fish. It was only when people started to want just chips that it was realised that they had value.
Alan Crook, Manchester

This article brings back memories of my times in the Royal Navy. When in the UK, some of the lads would go ashore and nine times out of 10 they would come rolling back to the mess deck with either fish & chips or pie & chips. One could be sound asleep - it was not the noise that woke you, but the aroma and the cry of "give us a chip". There is nothing else like the taste and aroma of fish and chips out of newspaper, which helps the aroma linger on.
Peter, Slough

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