Humans have been eating fish and potatoes for millions of years, that much we know. But when was it decided that to be best served the two elements had to be soaked in batter and fried? Someone has declared National Fish and Chips Day — it must be, there’s a hashtag being mentioned and The National Federation of Fish Friers — so let’s find out who first had the idea of making healthy things slightly less healthy yet substantially tastier by dunking them in oil.
Well, we all know about the potato, thanks to Blackadder. It came to the UK when Sir Walter Raleigh smuggled a few back from his expeditions overseas, and it really took off seeing as it’s so easy to grow that even the bits you cut off and throw away turn into even more potatoes all by themselves. This must’ve seemed like witchcraft back in the 17th century.
The finished article is not all our creation, though. The French are thought to have been the first nation to create a chip by plunging it in oil. References to the existence of the fried fish can be found in the works of Dickens, with his classic Oliver Twist — published in full in 1839 — making reference to a “fried fish warehouse” serving the residents of London, a dish brought to the UK by Jewish refugees.
So like much of the best bits of British cuisine, it’s actually an amalgamation of overseas foods, because all we ate before the exotic foreigners came here with all the nice stuff was turnip and squirrel stew.
And in a bizarre plot twist, food historians think the deep fried chip may have been an accidental accompaniment to the fish at first, with legend having it that during times of hardship and the unavailability of fish due to money, transport or the weather, people started frying up potatoes instead of fish as an alternative hot meal.
History does not name the person who first though to put the two together, although the North would rather claim fish and chips as its invention, thanks to the business of a Mr Lees from Mossley, Oldham, who began selling fish and chips from a shed in the town in 1863, and had the foresight to market it as the first fish and chip shop in the world. Although a Joseph Malin is said to have opened a similar business in London’s Cleveland Street in 1860.
A Healthy Choice?
The fact that fish wasn’t rationed during the war helped maintain its status as the national dish across generations, and even a ban on wrapping it up in newspaper — due to health and safety concerns in the 1980s — and making everyone put them in lifeless polystyrene containers didn’t lessen our impulses to eat some hot, oily things.
And of course now fat isn’t supposed to be all that bad for you after all, fish and chips has almost become the healthy choice of the clean-eating, bowl-photographing, food-blogging classes. After all, potatoes are vegetables, and it’s got to be better for you than a kebab or some processed wheat flour dipped in monosodium glutamate served with some meat of uncertain origin.