Deep-fried fish was probably first introduced to Britain by Jewish refugees from Portugal and Spain in the 1500s. In 1860, Joseph Malin opened the first fish and chip shop — chips, of course, being what the Brits call plump French fries — in Oldham, Manchester. A combination of mass trawl fishing in the North Sea and the construction of railways connecting the ports to the major cities made fish cheap and readily available, and it became a staple working-class food. By the end of the 1800s, chip shops (or chippers or chippys, as they came to be known), were ubiquitous. From there, the meal began to rise in popularity in neighboring Scotland and Ireland, and eventually spread to the United States.
The “fish” in fish and chips is generally cod or haddock, but other white fish, like pollock, plaice, and skate, aren’t uncommon, along with halibut, flounder, and tilapia in the United States. It all comes down to what’s available — many restaurants will let you choose from several options (be wary of a restaurant that can’t tell you what kind of fish goes into the fish and chips). The batter for this dish is generally just flour and water with some baking soda and vinegar added, but some restaurants replace the water with beer or milk. As for the chips, British fries are usually thicker than their American counterparts, with a super crunchy exterior and light and fluffy interior. The whole platter is served with a wedge of lemon and some malt vinegar on the side, and in the United States you’ll usually get tartar sauce as well. A popular side dish is mushy peas, which is exactly what it sounds like: peas cooked down until they’re mushy (it tastes better than it sounds).
It wasn’t so long ago that you’d be hard-pressed to find better fish and chips in most of America than what’s offered by the Long John Silver’s chain. Recently, however, some astoundingly delicious fish and chips have found their way onto menus at English-style pubs and seafood shacks alike, joining other classic institutions that have been serving the dish for years. In order to be considered a good version of the British national dish, the fish needs to be the whole fish fillet – not cut down in to smaller pieces like in many restaurants and fried to order, made with high-quality fish and supremely crispy. The chips should be crispy on the outside and fluffy in the center and perfectly complement the fish.
Check out our next Fish & Chip Night on our events page