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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

A Brief History of Food: Fish ‘n’ Chips


Recently the BBC broadcast an episode of “Rick Stein’s Food Stories” that stated the origin of fish and chips lay with the Portuguese who first fried fish in the 15th-century. While the fried fish claim might have a historical basis, as we will see, the connection with chips is more problematic as potatoes did not appear in Britain until the late 16th-century or early 17th-century. So, was Mr Stein correct? We set out to find out and it seems that, while now a quintessential part of British life, the origin story of fish ‘n’ chips is not entirely clear. We begin our story with exploring who introduced the idea of frying fish to Britain and when.


A fishy tale “Pescado frito” (literally “fried fish” in Spanish) is a traditional dish from the Southern coast of Spain, typically found in Andalusia, but also in Catalonia, Valencia, the Canary Islands and the Balearic Islands. It is made by coating the fish (usually a white fish) in flour and deep-frying in olive oil. Seasoned only with salt, pescado frito is usually served hot, freshly fried, to be eaten as an appetizer or as the main course. The deep-frying of the fish in olive or vegetable oil makes it crisp and light even when eaten cold. It became a traditional Shabbat fish dish eaten by 16th-century Andalusian Jews in Spain and Portugal as a late breakfast or lunch after synagogue services on Saturday morning. Although there is little in the way of proof, it is thought that this Jewish fish dish was the inspiration for what would become fish and chips. The argument runs that pescado frito was brought to England by Jewish migrants from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). Named for where they came from, Sephardim or Sephardic Jews began to settle in England in small numbers in the mid 17th-century.


The Jewish communities in Spain and Portugal had prospered for centuries under the Muslim reign of Al-Andalus in the aftermath of the Umayyad conquest of Hispania. Their fortunes began to decline, however, with the Christian campaign of Reconquista to seize back control of Spain from the Muslims. In 1492, the Alhambra Decree by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain called for the expulsion of Jews, and in 1496, King Manuel I of Portugal issued a similar edict for the expulsion of both Jews and Muslims. These decrees led to a combination of internal and external migrations, mass conversions, and also executions. By the late 15th-century, Sephardic Jews had been largely expelled from Spain and scattered across North Africa, Western Asia, Southern and Southeastern Europe, either settling near existing Jewish communities or as the first in new frontiers, such as along the Silk Road. Their widescale expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula was certainly not the first time Jews had experienced such persecution, however.


On July 18th, 1290 - a date chosen for its significance as a Jewish holy day – King Edward I issued “The Edict of Expulsion”, a royal decree expelling all Jews from England, the first time a European state is known to have permanently banned their presence. The expulsion edict remained in force for the rest of the Middle Ages. Yet, in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition, from the beginning of the 16th-century some Jews began to return to England. Those who did had to conceal their religion for fear of reprisal, but they seemingly did not have to do so with much vigour. In a case of “turning a blind eye” many of the Jews in England, although well known as such, were largely ignored. Many of these “hidden Jews” made names for themselves while in England.


The Edict of Expulsion of 1290 was eventually overturned more than 365 years later in the 17th-century. During Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, in 1656, Jews were informally permitted to resettle in England from the Netherlands. If these Sephardic Jewish immigrants continued to prepare fried fish in their traditional manner, then it is possible that the practice caught the imagination of the English and led to one half of today’s meal of fish and chips. A valuable connection to the Jewish immigrant origin story is corroborated in Alexis Soyer’s 1845 cookbook “A Shilling Cookery for the People”. In his first edition Soyer records the following recipe:


“75. Fried Fish, Jewish Fashion.


This is another excellent way of frying fish, which is constantly is use by the children of Israel, and I cannot recommend it too highly; so much so, that various kinds of fish which many people despise, are excellent cooked by this process; in eating them many persons are deceived, and would suppose them to be the most expensive of fish. The process is at once simple, effective, and economical; not that I would recommend it for invalids, as the process imbibes some of the fat, which, however palatable, would not do for the dyspeptic or invalid.


76. Proceed thus: - Cut one or two pounds of halibut in one piece, lay it in a dish, cover the top with a little salt, put some water in the dish, but not to cover the fish; let it remain thus for one hour. The water being below, causes the salt to penetrate into the fish. Take it out and dry it; cut out the bone, and the fins off; it is then in two pieces. Lay the pieces on the side, and divide them into slices half an inch thick; put into a frying pan, with a quarter of a pound of fat, lard, or dripping (the Jews use oil); then put two ounces of flour into a soup-plate, or basin, which mix with water, to form a smooth batter, not too thick. Dip the fish in it, that the pieces are well covered; then have the fat, not too hot, put the pieces in it, and fry till a nice colour, turning them over. When done, take it out with a slice, let it drain, dish up, and serve. Any kind of sauce that is liked may be used with it; but plain, with a little salt and lemon, is excellent. This fish is often only threepence to fourpence per pound; it containing but little bone renders it very economical. It is excellent cold, and can be eaten with oil, vinegar, and cucumbers, in summer time, and is exceedingly cooling. An egg is an improvement in the batter.


The same fish as before mentioned as fit for frying, may be fried in this manner. Eels are excellent done so; the batter absorbs the oil which is in them.


Flounders may also be done in this way. A little salt should be sprinkled over before serving.


77. In some Jewish families all this kind of fish is fried in oil, and dipped in batter, as described above. In some families they dip the fish first in flour, and then in egg, and fry in oil. This plan is superior to that fried in fat or dripping, but more expensive.”

(Hughes, 2022)


From Soyer we can firmly establish that the frying of fish was well known in Britain by the middle of the 19th-century. The first element of the classic fish ‘n’ chips meal is resolved, but what of the chips themselves and who, when and where were the two combined?


The humble potato According to “The Cambridge World History of Food” (Messer, 2000, 187-201) it was Spanish explorers in the 16th-century who first encountered the potato as they explored what would become the countries of Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador. While comparing the unfamiliar tubers to truffles, the Spanish apparently adopted the Quechua name “papa” for this new (to them) discovery. Returning from the Andes laden with silver destined for the Spanish government, it is thought that sailors also carried with them maize and potatoes as food for the journey home. It is speculated, therefore, that the first potato specimens probably reached Spain around AD 1570. It is further reasoned that leftover tubers (and maize) were taken ashore, planted and cultivated. From then on, the potato spread via herbalists and farmers to Italy, the Low Countries, and England. Uniquely for England there was likely a second introduction of the tuber sometime in the subsequent twenty years. Nonetheless, despite folklore crediting Sir Francis Drake with introducing the potato to Britain, this could not have been the case. During his round-the-world voyage between 1577 and 1580, Drake recorded his first encounter with potatoes off the Chilean coast in 1578. It would take him a further two years to return home, so it is highly unlikely that the tubers would have survived such a long period at sea.


The potato first spread across Europe for non-food purposes. As a member of the nightshade family potatoes were regarded with suspicion and fear so, at first, it was mostly used as livestock fodder or to feed the starving. This was confirmed in 1601 when botanist Carolus Clusius reported that potatoes were in common use in northern Italy for animal fodder and for human consumption. The tuber’s widescale cultivation remained stymied across much of Northern Europe by agricultural practices that favoured the customary growing of grain in open fields and the grazing of animals on fallow land. Potatoes were thus confined to small garden plots and excluded from large-scale cultivation, until the early 1770s. The colder years of the Little Ice Age in late 18th-century Europe caused many traditional crops to fail resulting in famines in several countries. At those times and places when and where most other crops had failed, potatoes could still be relied upon to contribute adequately to food supplies. Consequently, the humble potato eventually became widely accepted as a cheap, reliable foodstuff.


Ireland in the early 17th-century was probably the first country in Europe to cultivate potatoes on a widescale. When, by the 18th-century, the Irish population exploded, its people subsisted almost entirely on the crop. The potato had spread to England soon after it reached Ireland. On top of imports from the latter, potatoes were widely cultivated in Lancashire and around London to become a staple foodstuff by the 18th-century. By 1715 the potato was widely grown in the Low Countries, the Rhineland, Southwestern Germany, and Eastern France, and by the mid 18th-century had also been firmly established in the Kingdom of Prussia in northern and eastern Germany. Northern and western France took longer than eastern France, but there too it became common later that same century. From humble beginnings the potato rose to power the industrial revolution in 19th-century Europe, cementing its dominance into the 20th-century as a versatile food used in so many different dishes. All of which leads us neatly to consider chips.


Chips Ignoring the ongoing dispute between France and Belgium as to who invented “fries”, fried potatoes have long been popular in England. The earliest known recipe for something resembling today's chips appears in William Kitchiner's cookbook “The Cook's Oracle” published in 1817. Amongst a raft of recipes for potatoes, No. 104 probably best describes the cooking of “chips”:


“Peel large Potatoes, slice them about a quarter of an inch thick, or cut them in shavings round and round as you would peel a lemon; dry them well in a clean cloth, and fry them in lard or dripping. Take care that your fat and frying-pan are quite clean; put it on a quick fire, watch it, and as soon as the lard boils, and is still, put in the slices of potatoes, and keep moving them till they are crisp; take them up and lay them to drain on a sieve; send them up with a very little salt sprinkled over them.”


By the second half of the 19th-century deep-fried chips (slices or pieces of potato) may have first appeared in England as a recognizable dish. The Oxford English Dictionary notes as its earliest usage of “chips” in this sense the mention in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (1859) of “husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil”. Dickens had earlier also mentioned a “fried fish warehouse” in Oliver Twist first published in 1838.


Apparently chips first became popular in Lancashire and Yorkshire, but we may never know who was the first to combine them with the fried fish first introduced and sold by Jews in London’s East End. By the 1860s, however, the first combined fish-and-chip shops had appeared. The earliest known were opened in Bow, East London by Jewish immigrant Joseph Malin circa 1860 and, at about the same time, by John Lees in Mossley, Lancashire (1863).


Quite quickly fish and chips became a relatively cheap, staple meal among the working classes in England. Apart from their affordability, this popularity was fuelled by the rapid development of trawl fishing in the North Sea and the expansion of the railways during the second half of the 19th-century meaning fresh fish could be rapidly transported from the ports to the heavily populated areas and major industrial cities. By 1910 there were over 25,000 fish-and-chip shops across the UK, rising over the next two decades to over 35,000 shops. Since then, numbers have steadily declined until, according to the National Federation of Fish Friers, there are currently in the region of 10,500 specialist fish-and-chip shops in the UK. One amazing survivor is the Rock & Sole Plaice in Covent Garden, which started trading in 1871 and is London's oldest fish-and-chip shop (or “chippy”) still in operation.


Chippies The earliest chippies used only very basic facilities, usually a large cauldron of cooking fat, heated by a coal fire. Over time the modern fish-and-chip shop settled on a common layout where the food is still served to queuing customers over a counter in front of the fryers. Until the late 20th-century British fish and chips were often served wrapped in old newspapers, or with an inner layer of white paper (for hygiene) and an outer layer of newspaper or blank newsprint for insulation and to absorb grease. The practice of using old newspaper as a cost-saving exercise survived as late as the 1980s when it was ruled unsafe for food to come into contact with newspaper ink without a hygiene boundary layer of grease-proof paper. Newspaper has given way to fish and chips being wrapping in plain paper or served in recyclable cardboard or other biodegradable cartons.


Cooking Beef dripping or lard were traditionally used for frying imparting a different flavour compared to vegetable oils which now dominate. Frying in lard can still be experienced in some living industrial history museums, such as the Black Country Living Museum or Blists Hill Victorian Town. Most fish-and-chip shops use vegetable oils, such as palm oil, rapeseed or peanut oil, as these make fried chips suitable for vegetarians and for adherents of certain faiths.


In Britain and Ireland, cod and haddock are most commonly used for fish and chips, but it is not unusual for vendors to offer many other kinds of fish, especially other white fish, such as pollock, hake or coley, plaice, skate, ray, and huss or rock salmon (a term covering several species of dogfish and similar fish). Legislation introduced in 2003, however, requires fish must be sold with the particular commercial name or species named. This means in today’s chippies customers are more likely to be offered “haddock and chips” or “cod and chips” rather than the more vague “fish and chips”.


The fish is routinely filleted, so no bones should be found, before being coated and fried in a simple water and flour batter. To create a lighter, crispier batter, a little sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and vinegar is often added to produce bubbles in the batter. The water can also be substituted for milk or beer. Carbon dioxide in the latter gives a lighter texture to the batter, adds flavour and produces a more orange-brown colour.


And finally… So, although the origin of the classic dish of the British Isles, fish and chips, is far from clear-cut. It is believed that the fried fish component was introduced by Sephardic Jewish immigrants to England who arrived in the late 1400s and early 1500s. Their tradition of eating battered fried fish as a Sabbath meal found favour as a popular street food first in London. As for chips, our earliest evidence dates to 1817 within the pages of William Kitchiner's cookbook “The Cook's Oracle”. In the UK, chips are not “French fries”, the former being more thickly cut than the latter. As to which came first, it remains the case of discovering the earliest dateable reference to the frying of potatoes. Once again, this origin story is far from certain. Regardless, the combination of fish and chips has long been considered a working-class food; its rise in popularity coinciding with the apogee of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s. Over the intervening decades the dish has remained a firm favourite enjoyed by millions every year. Bon appétit!

 

References:


Dickens, C. (1859), “A Tale of Two Cities, Chapter V: The Wine Shop”, Project Gutenberg, available online (accessed March 13th, 2024).


Hughes, G., (2022), “A Shilling Cookery for The People, 1845”, available online (accessed March 13th, 2024).


Kitchiner, W., (1817), “The Cook's Oracle, Vegetables: Sixteen ways of Dressing Potatoes”, pp. 167 – 172, available online (accessed March 15th, 2024).


Messer E. (2000), “Potatoes (White)”, in Kiple K.F. & Ornelas K.C., (eds.), “The Cambridge World History of Food”, Cambridge University Press, pp. 187-201.


Royal Museums Greenwich website, “The history of fish and chips”, available online (accessed March 10th, 2024).


Zaino, C., (2013), “Chipping away at the history of fish and chips”, BBC Travel website, available online (accessed March 15th, 2024).

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