Fish and Chips. This tasty twosome has been a British favorite since the Victorian times. However, they weren’t always a duo. They came to the UK separately – one from Belgium and one from Portugal – and they weren’t paired up until about 1860.
Like much of history, there are several stories relating who did what first, but below is my favorite…
Let’s start with the history of those chunky chips. They are similar to French fries but thicker and not to be confused with American-style potato chips (which are called crisps in the UK).
The British chip can trace its history back to the 1600s in Belgium. It seems that the people living along the Meuse River used to catch small fish and fry them up as a tasty addition to their meals. But one winter when it was so cold that the river froze over, an anonymous housewife got creative. If she couldn’t get any fish to fry up, she would just make her own.
She searched the kitchen for dinner ideas, but all she found was potatoes. As she glanced back and forth between the spuds and her frying pan, she had an idea. If she cut the potatoes into strips about as wide as those little fish, her husband and kids might not even notice the difference. So that’s what she did and voila! That’s how chips were born. (History doesn’t tell us whether or not her family noticed the difference.)
Her new culinary creation was tasty and she told other Belgian housewives about it. Soon, the secret was out and chips became a popular fish substitute in many homes. When the Belgian Huguenots were fleeing persecution in the seventeenth century, many of them came to London and brought their chip-frying knowledge with them.
One hundred years before the Huguenots and their chips sought refuge in London another group of persecuted people had introduced fried fish. The recipe for battered and fried fish came to London in the sixteenth century with the Sephardic Jews who were fleeing the inquisition in Spain and Portugal.
Fish and Chips
In 1860 fried fish and fried chips were both being sold in the streets of London – but not together. The idea for pairing them up came from thirteen-year-old, Joseph Malin. Joseph’s family lived in East London and was descended from those early Sephardic Jewish immigrants. They were rug weavers who also sold chips from their home.
Little Joseph must have been eating a piece of fried fish from a neighboring shop when he popped one of his mum’s chips in his mouth. He liked the combination and thought they might sell well together. It’s easy to imagine him walking the streets with a tray hung round his neck calling out in his East London cockney accent, “Fish n’ chips! Get yer fish n’ chips ‘ere, mate!”
Once people tasted fish and chips together, it was love at first bite. Joe continued selling the delicious duo on the street from his tray, and when he was a bit older, he opened a shop on Cleveland Street.
Everyone Loves It
The new pairing was a great success. Originally fish and chips was considered a food for the lower classes. It was cheap and filling – and it tasted good. During the Industrial Revolution, it became a favorite meal of the working class and has continued climbing its way up the social ladder. Today you will find it served in posh restaurants as well as little corner shops.
By 1910 there were more than 25,000 chippies (fish and chip shops) around the country. In the 1920s the number of chippies peaked around 35,000. Today fish and chips has to compete with other takeaway fast foods and the number has dropped to around 10,500.
Wrap It in Newspaper
Many people remember eating takeaway fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. However, this is no longer done. It was discontinued in the 1980s for safety reasons when it was discovered that eating food covered in newspaper ink wasn’t good for us. Now the dish is usually served on a plate or in a takeaway box. This makes it easier to add the customary side of mushy peas, which are similar to mashed potatoes – except they are mashed peas. The Brits often top it all off with good doses of salt and vinegar.
So, our story which started with persecution and displacement has a fairy-tale ending. The unlikely couple – Belgian chips and Portuguese fish – lived a long and happy life together in the UK.
Read more stories like this in my book Bowlers, Brollies, and Brits: Curious Histories of England
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