Ask anyone what Britain’s national dish is, and you’ll normally receive the answer, ‘fish and chips’. The iconic dish is certainly popular: Brits consume about 382 million meals from fish and chip shops each year, including some 167 million portions of fish and chips, which works out at about three helpings annually for every man, woman and child in the UK.
Today, there are over 10,000 fish and chip shops in the UK, which, compared to 1,500 McDonald’s restaurants, cements the dish as a national favourite. But where and when were fish and chips invented? And is it really a British dish?
Read on for the history of how fish and chips were first introduced to Britain before evolving into the well-loved classic enjoyed by so many today.
Fried fish is of Sephardic Jewish origin
It’s likely that fried fish existed as early as the 8th to 12th centuries, when Jews, Muslims and Christians lived in relative peace in Portugal under Moorish rule. However, Moorish rule ended in 1249 when Christians conquered the territory, which, combined with the Spanish Inquisition, forced Jewish people to flee to neighbouring countries such as Portugal.
However, with Portuguese King Manuel I and Isabella of Spain expelling all of the Jews from Portugal from 1496, many Sephardic Jewish people moved to England as early as the 16th century.
They brought their culinary traditions with them. One such tradition was fried fish, which originated as a way of having something to eat on the Sabbath (sundown Friday night to sundown Saturday) when cooking is forbidden, since the batter preserves the taste and freshness of the fish.
The food quickly became a hit, with Jewish immigrants in England selling fried fish from trays hung around their necks. There is a record of it existing as early as 1781, with a British cookbook referring to “the Jews’ way of preserving all sorts of fish”. Similarly, after a visit to England, former US president Thomas Jefferson wrote about trying “fried fish in the Jewish fashion”.
Improvements in infrastructure popularised the dish
By the 19th century, fried fish had taken hold as a fairly popular dish in London. In his famous novel Oliver Twist (1838), Charles Dickens mentions ‘fried fish warehouses’, and celebrated Victorian cook Alexis Soyer gave the recipe for “Fried fish, Jewish fashion” in A Shilling Cookery for the People in 1845.
It wasn’t until the late 19th century that fried fish reached households outside of London. This is for two reasons: firstly, industrial-scale trawling in the North Sea allowed cheap fish to reach all corners of the UK, meaning that it became a stock meal for working-class families throughout Britain. Secondly, railroad lines that connected ports and major industrial areas were laid across the country. Fried fish consumption shot up as a result.
It is unclear where chips came from
Though it’s pretty clear where the fried fish element of the dish came from, less clear is when and how chips were added. What we do know is that it took a long time for potatoes of any kind to reach England.
Belgium has staked a claim as being the inventor of fried potatoes, with the story going that during the harsh winter of 1680, the river Meuse froze over, which made it difficult to catch fish. As a result, women cut potatoes into the shapes of fish and fried them in a bit of oil to provide sustenance.
Dickens again proves to be a useful source here: in A Tale of Two Cities (1859), he mentions “husky chips of potato fried with some reluctant drops of oil,” which demonstrates that chips had certainly reached the country by the middle of the 19th century.
Fish and chip shops first appeared in the 1860s
It is difficult to pinpoint the precise arrival of fried potatoes in England, but by 1860 we see the very first fish and chip shops. There is fierce debate as to which the first shop was. A young Ashkenazi Jewish immigrant named Joseph Malin opened one in London in 1860 which remained open until the 1970s. However, in Manchester, a fish and chip shop opened by John Lees was doing well by 1863.
Fish and chips were seen as morale-boosting during both wars
By 1910, there were some 25,000 fish and chip shops in the UK. During World War One, they stayed open in an effort to boost morale and keep families on the home front in good shape, with Prime Minister David Lloyd George ensuring that fish and chips stayed off the ration list. Winston Churchill observed the same practice during World War Two and famously referred to a hot meal of fish and chips as “the good companions”.
During and between the two wars, queues were commonplace when word went around that the local shop had fish. In 1931, a shop in Bradford had to employ a doorman to control the busy queue, and the Territorial Army prepared for battle on fish and chips provided in training camp catering tents.
Legend has it that British soldiers storming Normandy beaches on D-Day would identify each other by shouting ‘fish!’ and waiting for the response ‘chips!’
Debate about how to serve fish and chips is endless
Today, fish and chip shops are still dotted across every town, city and even village in the UK. They sell roughly 25% of all of the white fish consumed in the UK, and 10% of all potatoes.
The tradition of eating fish on a Friday originates from the Roman Catholic church via the belief that meat shouldn’t be eaten on a Friday. However, other traditions have changed, such as packaging: during the war years, paper rations meant that fish and chips was served in cones of yesterday’s newspaper, but in the 1980s this was phased out due to concerns about eating food that had come into contact with ink.
Condiments also vary from region to region. Traditionally, fish and chips is served with salt and malt vinegar, but people also enjoy alternative toppings such as gravy, curry sauce and ketchup.
One thing’s for certain: Britain’s national dish is here to stay.