Pity poor Fish & Chips. While it may not have been King of the World it certainly was King of England. No more. Once England’s National Dish, it now sweeps the streets to make way for England’s new National Dish: Curry. Fish & Chips is exactly what it sounds like (if, of course, you live in a place where “chips” are what Americans call “French fries”….what we call “chips” the Brits call “crisps”). Fish and Chips, called by Winston Churchill “the good companions,” are deep fried battered fish served with chips and, most often, salt and vinegar and “mushy peas” (which are not our “sweet peas” cooked to death, but rather a more starchy variety of peas cooked to the point that the Indians might call it a “daal.” The classic fish for the dish is either cod or haddock.
The origins of Fish & Chips lay in the march south from Scotland of fried potato strips shops and the march north from London of a fried fish tradition. Both elements of Fish & Peas had been introduced to England long before. Sir Walter Raleigh is said to have brought the potato to Britain in the 17th Century (though it was probably the French who first fried it). While Charles Dickens referred to a “fried fish warehouse” in Oliver Twist in 1838 he notably did not reference Fish & Chips shops. The two – the fried fish and the fried potatoes – collided in the outskirts of Manchester where the first Fish & Chips shops were started in the last half of the 19th Century (though London also lays claim to the first such shop). So was born a bit of an industry. City and seaside fish & chip shops sprung up throughout the UK serving the new dish rapidly and, at least, classically, on newspaper.
But Fish & Chips is, to England, more than just a dish and more than just a fast food industry. It came to symbolize something far larger to Britain. It became inseparable from the nation’s burgeoning middle class as a consequence of the urbanization of the late Industrial Revolution, the rapid development of trawl fishing in the North Sea, and development of railways connecting ports to cities during the second half of the 19th century. Derivatively, it became something of a symbol of the power of the Empire. Certainly it was seen by the British government during (and following) World War II as important enough to the national psyche that unlike just about everything else it was not covered by the national food rationing scheme that lay so much waste to the rest of British cuisine.
But times have changed. While there were 35,000 fish & chips shops in the UK in 1930 the number has plunged to around 11,000 now. Curry – an Indian import (albeit a highly Anglicized version thereof) — is the culprit, though incursions have been made by middle eastern kababs as well as pizza and even hamburgers. Britons have always prided themselves on making the spoils of Empire their own. This has applied every bit as much to matters cultural as to the antiquities brought to the British Museum, the riches enjoyed by their Barons, hereditary and industrial. My friend Martin Neilson argued that the ubiquity of Curry on English plates is very much the result of the British predilection of importing and making their own the best of what they conquer abroad. Regardless, there can be little doubt that curry is now England’s national dish. Who, it might be asked, conquered whom?
So it was that we found ourselves in Otley, outside of Leeds, in England’s North where we were staying with our good friend, Andy Tillison of The Tangent (a band that Ian Oakley and I had managed for a number of years). When Ian asked Andy about our dinner plans, Andy’s response was simple: “Otley’s Finest Fish & Chips. It’s the best chippey in England.” Ian was skeptical. I was more so.
Andy was right. There was nothing fancy about the place. Limited. One choice of fish: cod, haddock or haddock. It was as take-away as any McDonald’s…but it was so much better.
Dead simple. Add a little bit of mushy peas and it could scarcely be better. The key, as Andy explained, is that unlike most Fish & Chips shops, Otley’s fish and chips are fried in beef fat.
It was as good as Fish & Chips can get. And in a nod to the contemporary English palette, of course, they offer curry sauce for the chips.
— Michael A. Gardiner