Fish and Chips - the original British fast food

Food & Drink

Fish and Chips - the original British fast food

When people are asked to name the most typical British meal, the answer is often fish and chips. It is believed that the tradition in the UK of fish battered and fried in oil, served with similarly cooked potatoes, may actually have been brought by immigrants. It is estimated there are 10,500 specialist fish and chip shops in the UK, selling 382 million meals every year, and earning a staggering £1.2 billion.

Some consider that the first ever fish and chip shop was opened in 1860 in Bow, East London, by Joseph Malin who sold ‘’fish fried in the Jewish fashion.’’ Another rival for this claim to fame is John Lees who started selling fish and chips at a similar time out of a wooden hut at Mossley market in industrial Lancashire, near Oldham.

Like these two cases, the fish and chip shops that followed were originally small family businesses, often run from the ‘front room’ of a house, and their presence was commonplace by the end of the 19th century.

Through further growth well into the 20th century, the fish and chip trade expanded greatly to satisfy the needs of the growing industrial population.

The development of the steam trawler was meanwhile bringing fish from all over the North Atlantic, Iceland and Greenland and the railways allowed easy and fast distribution around the country.

Fish and chips became virtually essential to the diet of ordinary men and women, and particularly for those who wanted to grab a quick meal when away from home and eat it immediately from its wrapping of greaseproof paper or old newspapers.

The fish and chip shop was invaluable in supplementing the family’s weekly diet in the Second World War, as fish and chips were among the few foods not to be rationed. A number of named shops became famous for the quality of their fish and chips, particularly Harry Ramsden's, which began in 1928 in a wooden hut in White Cross, West Yorkshire. Three years later he moved into a new premises, complete with fitted carpets, oak-panelled walls, and chandeliers, and his business was eventually bought by corporate interests who built it up into an international chain.

Preparation is fairly simple. Battered fish is coated in flour and dipped into a batter consisting of flour mixed with liquid, usually water but sometimes beer. This is dropped into steel vats containing very hot oil. The chips are cooked similarly, using potatoes, thought to have been first introduced to Britain from the New World in the 17th Century by Sir Walter Raleigh, although the French also lay claim to inventing the fried potato chip.

Something that especially supported the consumption of fish and chips as the Friday evening meal was the Christian wish to eat an alternative to meat. As Jesus died on a Friday, the Catholic Church decided that his Crucifixion should be commemorated that day each week, and to honour his sacrifice, there should be a meat fast, opting instead for a fish dinner.  

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