Fish and chips celebrates 150 years as a British classic

Fish and chips celebrates 150 years as a British classic

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Once a cheap working-class meal, fish and chips has become a national favourite and a culinary classic, loved by Britons and tourists alike.

London – Whether wrapped in newspaper and eaten with greasy fingers or served on white china with silver cutlery, fish and chips has come a long way since it began 150 years ago.

But the traditional British dish, celebrating a landmark anniversary this year, still boasts pride of place in British culture.

The dish has survived the arrival of McDonalds and the trend for healthy and organic food, and there are now about 10,500 ‘chippies’ across Britain serving up between 250 million and 350 million portions each year.

What began as a cheap working-class meal became a national favourite and is now a culinary classic served at some of Britain's top restaurants.

"Something quite special"
Tucked away in London's west end district, a seat at J Sheekey is one of the most sought-after in the capital, with celebrity diners including Jude Law, Kate Moss and the cream of British acting talent from the nearby theatres.

White linen tablecloths and dark wood panelling mark it out as a refined establishment, but there on the menu is fish and chips.

"It's one of our top sellers," said head chef Richard Kirkwood, with about 150 to 200 portions sold in the restaurant each week.

"For me, there's something quite special about putting your knife into a light, crispy batter and then into the soft part of the fish and eating it together," he told AFP.

"You've got the crunchy, you've got the soft, you've got the sweet peas, the crispy chips. It's a great meal."

A woman eats outside a Fish and Chip Takeaway in Manchester, north-west England, on 10 March 2010. Whether wrapped in newspaper and eaten with greasy fingers or served on white china with silver cutlery, fish and chips has come a long way since it began 150 years ago.

For GBP 17.50 (USD 26, EUR 19), you'd expect something special, and the chefs here pride themselves on using fresh, sustainably caught haddock, deep fried in a light beer batter and served with chips and minted mushy peas.

The dish is served with tartare sauce, malt vinegar and tomato ketchup on request, all traditional fish-and-chip condiments – although diners here often wash it all down with champagne.

It is a far cry from the humble origins of the dish, which emerged from the fried fish cooked by Jewish communities in London's East End and the chipped potatoes favoured in the factories of industrial northwest England.

"It's so easy to eat"
The National Federation of Fish Friers (NFFF) believes the first fish and chip shop was set up in 1860 – which makes 2010 its 150th birthday – although chippies in northern England and London still argue over where this shop was.

John Walton, an academic who wrote a history of fish and chips, says that whatever its roots, the expansion of the railways in this period and the advent of steam-powered fishing trawlers meant the dish soon spread across Britain.

By the first world war, the industry had positioned fish and chips as a patriotic dish, and in the 1930s Harry Ramsden became the first to sell it to richer clients in his Yorkshire restaurant that grew into a national chain.

These days, the food is loved by Britons and tourists alike.

In a 2008 poll, fish and chips was voted above the queen as the thing Britons best love about Britain, while lawmakers celebrated its birthday this year with a motion proclaiming it as "at the heart of British culture".

Meanwhile, Rock and Sole Plaice, which claims to be the oldest chippie in London, is on the capital's tourist trail and serves up to 2,000 portions a day, largely to foreigners – including Bill and Hillary Clinton.

AFP PHOTO/PAUL ELLISFish and chips has also gone abroad. According to Tim Hughes, chef director of Caprice Holdings which owns J Sheekey and other celebrity haunts including The Ivy, it is a favourite in their restaurants in New York and Dubai.

"In upper Manhattan in New York they watch their weight like mad, but they love fish and chips, they can't get enough of it," he said.

The health question is a problem. Although initially seen as a good source of protein for poor workers, these days anything deep fried goes against the trend for healthy, organic food.

However, NFFF president Douglas Roxburgh insists that providing it is cooked well, it is healthier than other fast foods. "Two a week, one a week, as part of a healthy balanced diet, it's very good for you," he said.

And many would agree. On the beachfront in Brighton on England's south coast, diners brave a chilly wind to eat their cod and haddock and chips outside one of the town's best-loved chippies, Jaws Fish Bar.

Although the traditional way of wrapping the food in newspaper fell foul of European Union regulations years ago, Jaws keeps it simple, serving it up in a polystyrene bowl with a plastic fork for the bargain price of GBP 4.90.

"It's just so easy to eat. It's so fresh, so hot and tasty. It's wonderful, you can't beat it," said customer Ian Neary.

AFP / Expatica
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