Fish and chips may often be feted as the iconic British food staple, but that does not mean that Brits have been frying their fish since antiquity. As food fads go, the British affection for deep-fried fish is a pretty recent affair.
We learnt this little culinary detail when we visited Cádiz earlier this year. Fried fish is big in Cádiz, and it was Jewish settlers from south-west Spain and neighboring areas of coastal Portugal who took their fried fish habit with them to Britain.
By the 1830s, fried fish could be bought on the streets of London. It featured not on posh menus, but in grubby takeaways in back streets. Chapter 26 of Dickens’ Oliver Twist describes Field Lane in Holborn with its “commercial colony” and “emporium of petty larceny.” Those of the street’s sallow denizens who had a few coppers could get a portion of fish from the “fried-fish warehouse.”
More than a snack
The average corner-street chippy still does a good trade in Britain, but fried fish has moved decidedly upmarket with some classy London sit-ins charging over a tenner for fish and chips. The Punch Bowl pub in Mayfair has a whopping £16 price tag on cod and chips, while the Sea Shell at Lisson Grove only slightly undercuts that with a £14.85 tab for their most basic fish ’n chips dish.
Down in Cádiz, they just smile at London affectations. “You’d think from the way the English talk that they invented fish. It’s a gift from God and the seas,” says the waiter at a little freiduria near the cathedral. “We’ve been eating it here for a thousand years. It’s best done simply. And it’s always cheap.”
The British addition: Potatoes
But we don’t want to deprive Brits of their pride in their national dish. In Cádiz, fried fish is traditionally served just with bread. Dickens (also in Oliver Twist) describes men and women in east London walking around with fish baskets on their heads, and in Dickens’ day all those fish were never destined to be married to chips. It was not till later in the 19th century that the Brits had the inspired idea of serving fried potatoes with their fish.