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How Fish and Chips Became England's National Dish

fish and chips
A traditional meal of fish and chips is accompanied by tartar sauce and the mushy green peas. Simon McGill/Getty Images

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The irresistible combination of a thick hunk of battered cod resting atop a mound of steaming hot chips (known as french fries in America) is the quintessential British comfort food. Whether eaten on a plastic lap tray in front of the "telly," or gobbled down from a makeshift paper cone on the way home from the pub, a meal of fish and chips is like a serving of deep-fried nostalgia with a sprinkling of salt and vinegar.

At the dish's peak popularity in the late 1920s, there were 35,000 fish and chip shops in the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Today, there are still 10,500 "chippies" in the U.K. serving 360 million meals of fish and chips every year, the equivalent of six servings of fish and chips for every British man, woman and child.

The golden-fried combo is so deeply entrenched in British culture that it's hard to imagine a time when there wasn't a fish and chip shop in every neighborhood. But travel back a mere 200 years and you'd be hard-pressed to find fried fish or chipped potatoes anywhere in the British Isles. The delicious duo came together in the mid-19th century thanks in large part to the culinary contributions of immigrants.

A Sephardic Fish Fry

The practice of breading and frying fish is credited to Jewish communities originally living in Spain and Portugal. Known as Sephardic Jews, the Jewish communities of the Iberian Peninsula thrived there since the eighth century, much of it under Moorish Muslim rule.

The situation changed dramatically in the 15th century. First, the Spanish Inquisition outlawed Judaism, sending Spanish Jews fleeing to neighboring Portugal. Then, in 1496, the Portuguese King Manuel I married Isabella of Spain, who insisted on the conversion or expulsion of Jews from Portugal, too.

Some Jews chose to remain in Spain and Portugal, many of them feigning conversion but living in secret as "crypto-Jews." But others chose to flee to other parts of Europe where they could live their religion freely. And wherever the Sephardic Jews traveled, they brought their rich culinary traditions.

Cooking is not allowed on the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat), which begins on sundown Friday night and ends on sundown Saturday. So Sephardic Jewish families would prepare food on Friday afternoon that would last the next 24 hours. Fried fish, lightly battered with flour or matzo meal, tasted just as good a day later.

According to the author and food enthusiast Simon Majumdar, Jewish immigrants to England took to selling fried fish in the streets from trays hung from their necks by leather straps. As early as 1781, a British cookbook author refers to "The Jews' way of preserving salmon and all sorts of fish," and Thomas Jefferson, after a visit to England, wrote about sampling "Fried fish in the Jewish fashion."

Even today, some hints of the Jewish origins of British fried fish remain. The sign hanging above Booba's Fish and Chips outside of London advertises "Matzo Meal, Batter, Grilled."

But it wasn't until the mid-19th century that Jewish-style fried fish fully made the cultural transfer from the streets of East London to the broader British populace. And for that, says historian Panikos Panayi, you can thank the railroad.

"For people without historical perspective, the internet is revolutionary, but the railway changes everything," says Panayi, author of "Fish and Chips: a History." "Now you can transport fresh fish from the sea to anywhere in Great Britain within a few hours. That's when fried fish really takes off."

The Chip Mystery

Nobody is entirely sure how fried potatoes became a staple part of the European diet. We do know that it took a really long time for fried potatoes — or potatoes of any kind — to make their way to England. The exotic tubers, first brought to Europe by South American explorers in the 1500s, were considered inedible for centuries.

In Belgium, the story is that fried potatoes also originated in Spain in the 16th century and were brought north to a region called the Spanish Netherlands, which is near modern-day Belgium. There, in the 17th-century, fisherman who struck out at sea would carve potatoes into fish shapes and fry them up for a stand-in supper.

Payani wasn't able to pinpoint the precise arrival of fried potatoes to England, but it was definitely much later than the Belgian accounts. He believes that frying potatoes didn't really take off in Great Britain until the 1860s, which is right around the time that we see the very first fish and chips shops.

'The Good Companions'

So when exactly did these two fried friends get together?

There are competing claims for being the first British fish and chip shop. A Jewish immigrant named Joseph Malins is believed to have opened his chippy in the London neighborhood of Bow in 1860 after selling the classic combo in the streets for years. And up north near Manchester, the fish and chip stand owned by John Lees in the town of Mossley was already doing brisk business by 1863.

Panayi says that by 1900 fish and chips were a staple food in the U.K. Their widespread appeal was about cost and convenience as much as flavor. The advent of industrial-scale trawl fishing in the North Sea meant inexpensive fresh fish could be sent by rail to all corners of Great Britain to feed hungry factory workers and their families.

Case and Brewer Traditional Fish and Chips
Case and Brewer Traditional Fish and Chips shop in Dorchester, Dorset, England, has been around for decades. Fish and chip shops are called "chippies" in British slang.
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

By 1910, there were 25,000 fish and chip shops in the U.K., and they even stayed open during World War I. In an effort to boost morale at home, Prime Minister David Lloyd George made sure that fish and chips stayed off the ration list. The same practice was observed during World War II, when Winston Churchill famously referred to a hot meal of fish and chips as "the good companions."

According to the National Federation of Fish Friers (yup, that's a thing), British soldiers storming the Normandy beaches on D-Day would identify each other by yelling out "Fish!" and waiting for the barely coded response, "Chips!"

Mushy Peas and Malt Vinegar

In the modern, multicultural U.K., there is plenty of competition for the "national dish" — chicken tikka masala makes a strong claim — but London-born Panayi says that fish and chips is "still regarded as a culinary symbol of Britishness."

Some chippy traditions have changed over the years. For example, during the war years, paper rations meant that fish and chips were served in cones of yesterday's newspaper. That practice went out of favor in the 1980s. And traditionally, fish and chips were accompanied by salt and malt vinegar, but younger generations have turned to curry sauce and even ketchup.

"I wouldn't dream of doing that," says Panayi of the American fast-food condiment.

In Northern England, the classic side dish at the chippy is mushy peas, a gray-green concoction of well-boiled field peas that tastes much better than it looks. And any chippy worth its salt will throw in a sprinkling of "scraps" for customers savvy enough to ask. Those, of course, are the crispy bits of loose batter floating around in the fryer.

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