The History Of Fish and Chips

The history of Great British cuisine would be incomplete without discussing fish and chips, one of the most popular, most indulgent and most enduring foods in the history of the country.

It was a meal so important, in fact, that during both the first and second World Wars, fish and chips were not actually restricted by rationing like nearly every other food item at the time, allowing fresh fish delivery when every other foodstuff was limited.

However, much like many beloved British dishes, its origins are rather complex and begin in Holland.


Fried Fish And The Sabbath

The earliest examples of battered fish in the UK come from the Iberian Jewish tradition, particularly during the Spanish occupation of what would become the Netherlands.

After settling in England around the 16th century, many would prepare a meal for Shabbat that consisted of fried fish, coated in flour and then fried in oil, known initially in Spain and Portugal as Pescado Frito and a delicacy you can still find today in Andalusia and other regions.

What made it so effective as a sabbath food (specifically the "Seudah Shlishit", or third meal) was that it could be eaten cold, thanks to the use of vegetable oil rather than butter as a frying agent, given that it was forbidden to cook on Shabbat.


A Dickensian Tradition

By the start of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1837, the United Kingdom had changed dramatically, and there was a distinct increase in interest in fried fish.

It received a mention in Charles Dickens’ famous 1838 novel Oliver Twist, specifically at the start of Chapter 26, they mention the “fried-fish warehouse” of Field Lane.

The first mention of fried fish in a cookbook comes from Alexis Soyer’s 1845 cookbook A Shilling Cookery For The People, which suggests that you could use it to enhance the flavour of any fish by using a batter mix of flour and water before frying in oil.


The First Chip Shop

Interestingly, despite having at least a vague idea of where fried fish came from, we are uncertain as to when fish and chips were put together to make the culinary fusion that defines British cuisine today.

The first chips that were commercially sold in the UK came from a shop in West Riding, sold by a lady known as Mrs “Granny” Duce in 1859, although given how much potatoes were part of British diets, it stands to reason that chips may actually pre-date this considerably.

The first two fish and chip shops were opened at opposite ends of the country, with Joseph Malin’s London shop in 1860 and John Lees shop in Mossley, near Oldham, which is now Tommyfield Market, opening in 1863.

They quickly became a massive success, particularly among a working class that was increasingly connected to the docks and fishing traditions of the country.

The first fish and chip restaurant was opened in 1896 by Samuel Isaacs, and it rapidly expanded across London and the south coast, particularly places such as Ramsgate, Margate and Brighton.

Since then, fish and chip shops have become ubiquitous and were considered so important to people that it was not rationed during the First World War, which helped keep morale at home strong in contrast to the German-led Quadruple Alliance of the time.