Traditional Fish And Chips

Each afternoon at 1.45 last week, Radio 4 gave tips for anyone thinking of opening a chippie. This might seem a strange ambition to encourage on our most middle-class radio station, but as we learn from a book to be published later this month, Fish and Chips: A History by Panikos Panayi, supplying fish suppers to the British people has always been a means of upward social mobility. Although the French allegedly still call the British les rosbifs, for centuries the emblematic dish of the United Kingdom has been the nutritionally unbalanced, deep-fried meal of fish and chips. Yet there’s something historically weird about the link between our chief takeaway delicacy and Britishness.

As for the class thing, ever since Dickens first mentioned “chips” in print (in A Tale of Two Cities in 1859) and Henry Mayhew cited it as the food of the poor in 1861, fish and chips has been seen as a feature of working-class life.

Is this still true? Not only did the Ivy in London feature fish and chips on its made-over menu when Chris Corbin and Jeremy King relaunched the place and made it chic in 1990, but so did its smarter sister, the Caprice; and haddock and mushy peas can now be found even on the pricey menu at Scott’s. No longer the working man’s nourishment, a fish supper is now classless, which somewhat increases its credibility as our national dish.

Why, though, is fish and chips considered British in the first place? Claudia Roden’s 1996 The Book of Jewish Food, the ultimate authority, says battered fried fish “was a legacy of the Portuguese Marranos (crypto-Jews) who came to England in the 16th century, many of them via Holland”. Nominal Christians, they were secretly practising Jews, who fried their fish on Friday (the Christian world’s fish day) and ate it cold on their Sabbath later that night or the next day, when they were forbidden to cook or even light a fire.

There is a wealth of references to back this up, including Manuel Brudo writing in 1544 “that the favourite diet of Marrano refugees” [from the Inquisition] was fried fish, sprinkled with flour, dipped in egg and breadcrumbs; Hannah Glasse writing in 1781; Lady Montefiore, who anonymously wrote the first Jewish cookery book in English (in 1846) and recommended frying fish in “Florence oil” – olive oil; Eliza Acton in 1845; and President Thomas Jefferson, whose niece Virginia put together a collection of his favourite recipes, including Alexis Soyer’s 1855 instructions for fish fried in the Jewish manner

By Paul Levy

2:34PM BST 04 Oct 2014


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