Insight & Analysis

How fish and chips became Britain’s national dish

Published: Oct 2019

It’s a well-known fact that the British love their takeaways; pizzas, burgers, curries and noodles all spring to mind. But there is one tasty treat they just can’t beat – the traditional plate of fish and chips.

Fish and chips on a plate

There’s something about the irresistible combination of a thick hunk of battered cod resting on a mound of steaming hot chunky chips (French fries in America), to whet the appetite.

Whether eaten off a plastic tray at the beach (wooden fork essential), or at home with your feet up, fish and chips is like serving up a portion of deep-fried nostalgia with a sprinkling of salt and vinegar.

But how did it become the nation’s favourite comfort food?

The story begins back in 18th century London, where Jewish immigrants brought with them the custom of frying fish. Because cooking is not allowed on the Jewish Sabbath, which begins at sundown Friday night and ends at sundown Saturday, fried fish, lightly battered with flour lasted for the full 24 hours – and tasted just as good.

Indeed, in his 1838 novel Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens makes reference to a fried fish warehouse. He did so again in his 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities. However, it is not until the coming of the railways that fried fish took off, as fresh fish from the sea could be transported to anywhere in the UK within a few hours.

By the 1830s, the process of frying potatoes was incredibly popular in Belgium, and by the 1860s, the UK was chip crazy. While no-one knows when or who decided to put the two companions together, there are two competing claims as to who opened the very first fish and chip shop.

The first claim to fame was by Jewish immigrant Joseph Malins in the east London neighbourhood of Bow in 1860. The second was by market stall holder John Lees in Manchester in 1863.Regardless of who claims the title, by 1900 fish and chips were a staple food in the UK and remain so to this day.

According to the National Association of Fish Friers, there are currently 10,500 fish and chip shops in the UK (McDonalds only has 1,200 shops), and 382 million meals are eaten every year.

It goes without saying, if you’ve never tried a steaming plate of traditional British fish and chips (with added salt and vinegar, no less) you don’t know what you’re ‘fishing’ out on.

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