The last meal my parents had before I graced the world with my presence was fish and chips, so I like to think it forms part of my origin story. Growing up on the coast, fish and chips featured in all its forms: bags of chips clutched on windy beach walks; takeaway fish suppers brought home by Dad, steam escaping from cardboard boxes; and the ultimate luxury, a sit-in experience at Colmans, the South Shields king of fish and chip restaurants, accompanied by a slice of bread and butter and a cup of tea. I was built on fish and chips; salt and vinegar course through my blood.
Battered fried fish was brought over to London by Jewish immigrants coming from Spain and Portugal, via the Netherlands, as long ago as the 16th century. It followed the pescado frito method of frying fish in oil, which, as well as being delicious hot, was far more palatable cold than if it had been fried in butter. This meant that it could be cooked for supper at the start of Shabbat, but still be eaten cold the following afternoon, when cooking was prohibited.
It wasn’t until the Victorian explosion of street food, though, that fried fish became the British staple that it is today. During the first world war, the government protected supplies of fish and chips, while during the second, it was one of the few foods not subject to rationing.
Fried fish is fast food and when it first became popular it was cheap too. It’s hot, nutritious, filling and an economical way to feed a family. But that’s a very functional way to look at its long-standing appeal. Deep-frying in batter is actually the perfect way to cook something as delicate as fish: the batter protects the fish, bubbling up to form an edible shock absorber that allows you to cook it hot and fast without destroying it.