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The Surprising Story of Fish & Chips

By Memrise Team

Fish and chips is as British an institution as the Queen, and one of the few dishes that the UK might be recognised for around the world. Sitting on a bench, eating that deep-fried delicious goodness out of yesterday’s newspaper with a wooden fork by the seaside on a cold blustery day is one of those quintessentially British images that defines a nation.

The writer George Orwell, who is famed for his unparalleled depictions of English society, once wrote that fish and chips was one of those critical home comforts that kept the masses happy and “averted revolution”. It would seem that British politicians took him quite seriously, as they did everything in their power to make sure that fish and chip shops around the country remained open during the Second World War.

Nowadays when Brits fancy a takeaway, the world really is their oyster in terms of the sheer variety of foods they can order to their front doors at the click of a button, but fish and chips still remains the country’s favourite. If you sit down at a pub and don’t see fish and chips on the menu, here’s a word of advice: don’t eat there.


Where does fish and chips come from?

Like many things about our island, the origins of fish and chips are actually a lot more international than you might think. If you visited the UK a few hundred years ago, you’d find neither fried fish nor fried chips, nor anyone who’d ever heard of them.

It wasn’t until the 17th Century that fried fish first made an appearance on British shores. It was actually brought over by Sephardic Jews from Portugal and Spain, who got the idea from a traditional food they knew and loved from their old homes, called pescadito frito.

However, tasty food knows no borders, and by 1860 the first fish and chip shop was opened by a man named Joseph Malin in the Jewish East End of London (not too far from the Memrise offices today), which advertised itself as selling fish “fried in the Jewish fashion”.

Chips first made an appearance in the UK at around the same time. The practice of frying chunks of potato had originated in France and Belgium (who, let’s face it, are still pretty serious about their frites), and were first mentioned by Charles Dickens, in his 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities, where he described them as “husky chips of potatoes fried with some reluctant drops of oil”.

How did fish and chips take off?

Right from the beginning, fish and chips was a non-pretentious food for the everyday man. But by the end of the 19th Century, a man named Samuel Isaacs decided that shouldn’t have to mean they didn’t deserve a bit of ritz and glamour too.

In 1896 he opened up the very first ‘fish restaurant’, which served what was fast becoming the nation’s favourite dish in a sit down establishment. He wanted to make the experience of dining out (which had been a preserve of the wealthy) affordable to the working classes for the first time. He completed his restaurant with tablecloths, flowers, china and cutlery, and did his best to give the British staple an air of elegance, which it retains to this day.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, demand for fish and chips went through the roof. Fortunately, the invention of the steam trawler meant that enough fish could be brought in en masse from Greenland, North America and all over the Atlantic, then transported on Britain’s extensive rail network to hungry customers all over the country.

Demand reached such a peak that apparently in 1931, one fish shop in Bradford had to employ a full time doorman to keep the queue under control at busy times!

Who eats fish and chips now?

Almost everyone! The chippy is as essential a part of the British high street as the local pub. In 1999, the UK consumed nearly 300 million servings of fish and chips in one year!

Nowadays, it’s quite widely recognised that fish and chips has gone through something of a revival. You now see more chippies than you did before, and it looks set to be the nation’s favourite dish for many years to come. The only thing people might disagree on, though, is how to eat them!

In London and the South (where we shot this video) people are happy to cover them with salt and vinegar. In Birmingham people love it with curry sauce. In Glasgow (where, incidentally, you can ask the man in a chippy to deep fry almost anything, including a chocolate bar) people want them with pickled onions, while in Manchester people smother them with mushy peas and gravy.

So wherever they came from and however you eat them, next time you’re near a British chippy, why not tuck into the nation’s favourite dish?

bVdID8LUAlex is Memrise’s Language Learner in Residence. He spends his time working with the Language Research Team, making fun videos about languages, and contributing to the Memrise blog. He tweets @rawlangs_alex.

In his free time he enjoys cooking, watching films, and walking his dog. He also writes books, like this one.

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