Fish and Chips: The good companion

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Winston Churchill went as far as calling them “the good companions”.  John Lennon covered  his with ketchup. Michael Jackson, not often deemed a traditionalist, “fancied” them with mushy peas. Achieving nearly iconic status and hailed as a hero through two world wars and for generations beyond, fish and chips has created millions of memories while helping to invigorate Britain’s industrial primacy.

This simple dish – eaten with greasy fingers during a family holiday, as pay-day reward for a job well done at the end of the work week, or a late-night snack when the “munchies” took over on the way home from night out at the pub.  Few even try to resist the mouth-watering combination – moist white fish in crisp golden batter, served with a generous portion of hot chips.

Soldiers of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (West Riding) line up for Fish and Chips from a mobile shop set up in the Wathgill Camp during manoeuvers in August 1936 in Richmond, Yorkshire. Photos: Hulton Archive/Getty

The inter-World War years marked the heyday of fish and chips. There were 35,000 cafes and fish bars serving on the streets of Britain and the largest, Picton’s in Margate, served 700 at a sitting. Even now, with fast food chains competing for tummy room, the UK still supports 10,500 fish-and-chip shops, serving some 170 million meals worth more than £1 billion a year in consumer revenue.

Strange then, given how utterly British this meal became, that no one put a fried fish and a fried chip side by side until about 1860. Strange too, that each half of the national dish originated overseas.

Sure, there was fried fish before this nation-building culinary marriage. There were fried chips as well, but not together, sprinkled with the same vinegar. So how did it happen?

Poster, Eat More Fried Fish — A Hot Favourite.
circa 1950s

Chips appear to have come from Belgium, although there’s a fierce rivalry between the Belgians and the French as to just who ‘invented’ the chip. The fact that it was considered “peasant” food may explain the lack of certainty in the history.

Some say the 1860 date is controversial, those ‘some’ being from Oldham in Manchester, where there’s a rival claim to being the first. Here, in 1863, John Lees began selling fish and chips from a wooden hut in Mossley Market and later opened a shop under the sign ‘Lee’s Chip Potato Restaurant: Oldest Estd. in the World’.

There will probably never be a final settling of that argument, but wherever and whenever the idea occurred, the resultant meal has become as British as the monarchy, and as popular, too.

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