-The Cooking Colonel of Madras by David Smith

classic meals >

the fish and chips supper

a fish and chips supper

a fish and chips supper with mushy peas

       The Fish and Chips Supper forms the mighty triumvirate of classic English meals alongside the Full English Breakfast and the Roast Beef Dinner.

Fish and Chips is a fillet of fish coated in a savoury batter and then deep fried served with long rectangular pieces of deep fried potato. To clear up any misunderstanding, British chips are like a fat version of French fries and not chips of the American variety which we call crisps. The batter for the fish is made from seasoned flour, a raising agent and water although in some recipes beer replaces part or all of the water for a lighter, bubblier texture. The variety of fish most commonly used is cod although haddock is also popular. Traditionally fish and chip shops used beef fat for the deep frying. Some still do, including some very fashionable restaurants, but most fish and chip shops moved over to healthier (and cheaper) vegetable oil many years ago

In his excellent book British Food Colin Spencer notes that one of the earliest references for fried fish is in Oliver Twist published in 1838 in which Dickens mentions the existence of a fried fish warehouse. Spencer tells how the fried fish would be pre-cooked in the warehouse and then hawked around the local London pubs with the sellers calling "fish and bread, a penny". Chip shops also existed at that time but they were small scale affairs, based in domestic kitchens, compared to the industrial premises of the fish sellers. Colin Spencer suggests that combining fried fish and fried potatoes first occurred in the north of England in the industrial areas of Yorkshire and Lancashire although it is not well documented. What we do know is that by 1914 fish and chip shops were selling around 800,000 suppers each week.

Fish and chips is very much a living culinary tradition in England and in the rest of Britain.. There are fish and chip shops in every town and even in the larger villages. I have enjoyed wonderful fish and chips in Hawarth in Yorkshire (Bronte country if you recognise the name) cooked in beef fat in the traditional manner. I have been into a fish and chip shop in Sheffield and ask for a fish cake (which in the south of England would be fish minced with mash potato and shallow fried) and been given the most wonderful construction of flaked fish sandwiched between 2 slices of potato then covered in batter and deep fried. I've had the crispiest, lightest batter I've ever tasted in a very upmarket hotel in Falmouth and eaten steaming fish and chips straight out of paper carton on the windy seafront at Scarborough.

So what goes with fish and chips? In every fish and chip shop you will be asked "salt and vinegar?" when you get your order. The vinegar will be pungent malt vinegar and the salt will often be plentiful unless you specify just a light sprinkling. Another popular way to enjoy your chips is to dip them in tomato ketchup. If you are eating fish and chips in a restaurant then tartare sauce will often be served as an accompaniment for the fish. Tartare sauce is a piquant mayonnaise flavoured with finely chopped pickled gherkins, capers and herbs. "Mushy peas" originated in the north of England but are now popular everywhere. Mushy peas are marrowfat peas cooked in water with sugar and salt until the peas break up to form a thick, almost solid soup.

Every country has its street food and Fish and Chips is England's undefeated champion.