Some seek incomparable pieces of art, or rare historical treasures, or perhaps something abstract like the meaning of life. I applaud these lofty pursuits but often I get engrossed with pursuing the simpler things; although if you can tell me where all of my single socks have got off to I will pay you almost anything. Often, simple pursuits don’t live up to their name, simple. One such simple quest is the search for great fish & chips in America.
Fish & Chips found its beginnings in the British Isles or more specifically in either London or Lancashire dependent upon which tale you find more plausible or compelling. It is uncertain when the UK takeout staple was “invented” but it is believed to have happened sometime in the early 19th century. Keep in mind that the potato didn’t reach Europe or the British Isles until the 17th century. For fans of classic literature, Dickens made mention of a “fried fish warehouse” in his enduring second novel, Oliver Twist, which was first released in 1838.
By the late 19th century fish & chip houses were often small operations run out of the front room of the family home. In the 20th century the common chip house had moved to a proper business dwelling as well as being sold on city street corners from London to the industrial cities of the North and beyond. Soon it was clear that fish & chips was a national dish of sorts and its popularity is not in danger of waning anytime soon. At the millennium the Brits consumed more than 300 Million servings of fish & chips! The UK has about eight fish & chips outlets for every McDonalds. Being commonplace has not made the fish & chip “common.” On the contrary. UK pubs, chips shops, and the average consumer take their favorite takeout food very serious. I bet you weren’t aware that there exists an organization that seeks to preserve and promote fried fish. The National Federation of Fish Friers Limited does just that and has done so since 1913. They boast a membership of more than 8,500 fish & chip shops providing educational and promotional materials as well as training. They are also charged with naming the Fish & Chips Shop of the Year. By the way, last year’s winner was Petrou Brothers, in Chatteris, Peterborough. This spot has been a family owned and operated business for more than 30 years. And the brothers also own a gastro pub, Bar23, and recently acquired the Anchor Pub in Wimblington, which is recognized by The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) that promotes traditional cask ale in the UK and beyond.
In the US, dining on fish & chips can often be a disappointing experience. Fish & Chips, on paper – as they say, is rather simple. It requires fish, a batter, potatoes and some hot oil. If you are seated in a pub you may also look forward to some mushy peas and malt vinegar. So how can something so simple be so frequently disappointing? The answer is really quite simple, laziness. Prepared frozen foods are not only the bane of the average American household but it is all too often present in restaurant kitchens. Fish & Chips is ubiquitous pub fare in the States and sadly it seems that when anything becomes commonplace in the US, it is often treated with complacency if not outright disdain. That may sound a bit serious but it really burns me when I am asked to pay hard earned cash for food that travels from freezer to deep fryer to plate. To further defy logic, great examples of fish & chips are typically sold for the cost of the usual imposter. Buyer beware.
The Anatomy of Respectable Fish & Chips
The fish. The most common fish used for fish & chips is cod. In the UK, particularly near the sea, haddock & chips can be found. For my money, haddock and chips can’t be beat. It’s perfectly fleshy while flaky with delicate and clean flavors. Of course, the freshest fish possible is preferred while quality frozen fish should not be dismissed as long as you properly thaw and dry the fish before coating and cooking.
The batter. A beer batter is best. It creates a light yet subtly flavored coat that perfectly accompanies your fresh fish. Breadcrumb, crackers, or cornmeal coatings can be enjoyable if properly executed but these preparations have noting to do with traditional fish and chips.
Chips. Start with real, whole potatoes and you are well ahead of the game. Twice fried method is best. First fry at 325 degrees F; the second at 375 degrees F.
Condiments? I prefer malt vinegar but to each his own. Tarter sauce and ketchup are usually in good supply. However, no place serving fish & chips without malt vinegar can be taken seriously.
Beverages. In my view fish & chips is best served with an Ale, preferably a fresh Pale Ale. However, on certain occasions I have been a big fan of a cool pint of Cider along side my fish & chips. The fruity and tart flavors are an ideal foil.
Lastly, I shun any attempts to make fish & chips a fancy, upscale dish. I have seen several efforts in this regard using more exotic fish, or a newly interrupted coating. Fish & chips is not in need of a makeover, it simply needs to be made with care.