History of Fish and ChipsFish and Chips is probably the most famous dish associated with the UK. Every town that is big enough to have a restaurant almost certainly has a Fish and Chip shop. Over the past 150 years, it has become the go-to Friday night treat. We remember eagerly awaiting Friday’s for the greatest school dinner’s (yes, we called school lunch, dinner), or a family trip to the chippy. Here, we are going to delve into exactly why. What is the history of fish and chips, the nations most-loved dish? Why did it become so popular – and where are the best places you can enjoy it in Scotland?
Who brought Fish and Chips to the UK?
Fried fish and chips eaten together is a British combination. However, neither of the constituent parts are British in origin.
Portuguese Jews fled to Britain in the late 15th and early 16th century. This was due to Manuel I of Spain issuing an order that all Jewish people had to be baptized and become Catholic, or be executed.
The displaced Sephardi Jews brought with them their tradition of frying white fish, usually cod or haddock, in flour before sunset on Friday. As cooking is not allowed on the Sabbath, this method preserved the fish, meaning it could be eaten cold the next day without losing its flavour. It was a huge hit with the locals and fish “cooked in the Jewish manner” was sold on the streets of London every day.
The history of the chips, however, is a little less clear. The story goes that during the winter of 1680, potatoes were cut into the shape of fish then fried in the Belgian city of Namur. Why? Because the river had frozen over and they couldn’t get any real fish.
How chips made their way into Britain is a tale in muddier waters. However, one historical account tells of a tripe seller named Mrs. “Granny” Duce selling the first fried cut potatoes to the public in 1854.
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Who invented Fish and Chips?
As with almost all things in the world of food, the history of fish and chips is unclear as to who actually invented the great dish, sparking much debate (well, in certain circles anyway). However, these are the most prominent references throughout history.
Literary icon, Charles Dickens, makes reference to a “fried fish warehouse” in the popular tale Oliver Twist. This was first published in 1838. And, with Granny Duce selling her chips in Northern England, both constituent parts were being sold and popular in different parts of the country. However, it was the combining of the two that sparked true culinary genius.
A Jewish immigrant called Joseph Malin opened the first known fish and chip shop in 1860, London. It was so popular that it remained open for over a century, only closing in the 1970s.
The other name in the race to first is a man from Mossley (near Oldham), in the North of England. John Lees owned a “Chipped Potato Restaurant”, opening in 1863, and also sold the famous pairing. He sold his fish and chips from a wooden hut at a market before upgrading to a brick and mortar shop. In the window, he had inscribed “This is the first fish and chip shop in the world”.
Whoever it was, it became an instant sensation. People started slathering batter on their favourite fish and serving it with chunky chips.
The industrialisation of the 19th and 20th century brought even greater popularity of the fish and chips. It quickly became a favourite of the factory and mill workers.
To keep costs down, they used old newspapers as wrappers. This sparked the phrase “today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chips papers”. This practice stopped in the 1990s as people worried about the ink seeping into their food. Sometimes, in restaurants, your fish and chips will come on decorative, food-safe, newspaper. But, a takeaway will wrap it in plain paper or, more frequently, simply serve in a cardboard box.
Fish, Chips and War
By 1935, there were over 35,000 fish and chips shops across the UK. It had solidified its place as a Friday night favourite and a critical part of British culture.
In fact, fish and chips had become so essential to the British diet that one chip shop in Bradford had to employ a doorman. This was to control the queue which would get so out-of-hand in the busy times during 1931.
In WW1 Prime Minister Lloyd George made sure the fryers stayed on even during the hardest times at home.
During WW2 the government went to great lengths to ensure it was the only food never rationed. Their reasoning? – For the morale of the nation. When there was fish in the chip shop, people would queue for hours to get their fix! Sir Winston Churchill even called Fish and Chips “good companions”, convinced it helped defeat the Nazis by keeping morale high at home.
George Orwell reckoned that the comfort of fish and chips saved the UK from falling into violent revolution.
Salt and Vinegar are the classic partners for Fish and Chips. Salt, because salt makes everything better. And vinegar because it helps with the fattiness of the dish; it is all deep-fried after all.
If you’re in Edinburgh you will be offered “salt and sauce”. The “sauce” component is like HP brown sauce, mixed with vinegar. It’s very sharp and a bit of an acquired taste, to be honest. You can ask for salt and vinegar instead, or get some sauce on the side to see if you like it. If you just say yes to salt and sauce, they will cover your food in the sauce, so be aware.
Tartare sauce is the other traditional sauce to have with fish and chips. This sauce originates in Steppes near Ukraine and is made of mayonnaise, capers, onions, mustard and pickles. It can also contain herbs such as dill or tarragon. This is much more common in England than Scotland but almost all chip shops will sell it.
Mushy Peas are a classic side dish for your fish. They are made from marrowfat peas which have been boiled until mushy and aren’t to everyone’s taste. Be warned, the cheap chip shop kind can be a bit grey and unappetising. However, if you’re eating in a more upscale fish and chip shop, or even a gastro-pub, I would highly recommend giving them a try as the slight sweetness is lovely with the salty/sharp chips.
Chip shop curry sauce. I love chip shop curry sauce, Katie hates it. It’s incredibly thick and rich, not too spicy, but it will stain everything it touches permanently yellow. I like to have some on the side for dipping my chips into or some chips, cheese and curry sauce separate but that’s a whole other thing.
As Scots, we debated whether or not to include gravy. It’s not something you will see in a Scottish chippy, but step foot into the North of England and everything (we really do mean everything) gets dipped into the gravy. Chip shop gravy is thick, rich and very dunkable – just not something this pair of Scots can get their head around having with chips!
Where to eat Fish and Chips in Scotland
So where should you try this giant of British gastronomy? There are roughly 11,000 Fish and Chip shops open across the UK. We’ve picked a few from around Scotland that are worth trying. When in Scotland, though, it’s important to know that in a chippy (fish and chip shop), we refer to anything that comes with chips as a supper. If you want it without the chips, then it’s a single i.e. fish supper or a single fish.
The Fishmarket, Newhaven, Edinburgh
The Fishmarket was recently featured on the BBC’s “Remarkable Places to Eat” tv programme. They use sustainable fish, sourced from the fishmongers next door and cook everything to order: key for quality fish and chips. It’s not the cheapest but it’s also not wildly expensive. You can dine in or enjoy your meal overlooking the Firth of Forth. We have eaten a lot of fish and chips in our life, but this wins, hands down.
Anstruther Fish Bar, Anstruther
The small fishing town of Anstruther in Fife is home to one of the most famous Fish and Chip shops in Scotland. They use the best fish straight off the boats and have won the “Best Fish and Chips” awards multiple times. You can also get local lobster and crab if you want to branch out from haddock or cod.
People travel far and wide for their treats from here so expect a queue. If you’re there on a weekend or bank holiday it will be a long wait, but it is definitely worth it.
Blue Lagoon, Argyle Street, Glasgow
Ok, so this one’s possibly not one of the best fish and chips you ever will eat, but the Blue Lagoon is a national icon. You will see a lot of Blue Lagoon chip shops around Scotland, particularly in Glasgow. The original is on Sauchiehall Street, but the most famous one is on Argyle Street, beside Central train station. Celebrities such as P!nk, David Beckham and Justin Bieber have all visited this little hole in the wall. Even more importantly, it was Katie’s go-to eatery at 3am after consuming more alcohol than would be advisable!
The Bay Fish and Chips, Beach Road, Stonehaven
My hometown of Stonehaven is the home of the deep-fried mars bar. However, the Haven, now The Carron chip shop, where it was created is not the best in this small seaside town. Instead, The Bay has won national awards and features in Lonely Planet as one of the best in Scotland. Right on the beachfront, you can enjoy your fish and chips whilst walking along the freezing north sea coast of Scotland. Unless you’re lucky enough to visit on those 3 days of summer we have.
The Chippy, Portree, Isle of Skye
If you’re sensing a theme that the best chip shops are right next to where the fish is landed, then you’d be right. The Chippy on Skye is another star, making the most of the freshest produce. It helps to be located in one of the most beautiful places in the world too.
Scotland is abundant in beautiful landscapes, perfect for creating a diverse and exciting food scene.
Click here to read all about the top Scottish foods and drinks to enjoy on your next trip.
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The Plate Unknown is an educational food blog. Here we share information about world food culture, the origin of dishes from around the world, and tips for taking a food-focused trip.