THRIVING CULTURE OF FISH AND CHIPS
FThe Washington Post rank Dobson Square is no place to linger, even on a warm day. This brick-paved chunk of East London has seen better days. Those sitting on the benches around the square — who number three, including me, this Thursday morning — have only its former home, a forlorn metal plinth, to look at now.
This is where the world's first fish and chip shop, Malin's, was founded in the early 1860s.
Elsewhere in the city, things are different. Despite the arrival of Indian and Chinese takeaways, fried chicken shops, and the emergence of London as a bullishly self-confident "foodie" city, the British capital still has plenty of chippys. As a lifelong devotee, I've decided to go in search of the best — and, in between stodgy, salt-and-vinegarladen bites, I'll find out more about its history, ingredients and unique place in British culture.
First, history. Frank Dobson Square is a few minutes' walk from the heart of London's most fascinating neighbourhood, Whitechapel, which has been home to successive waves of immigrants over the past few centuries. That's why fish and chips emerged here — or at least the fish part, which was bequeathed to Britain by Jewish immigrants.
I turn left into Osborn Street, which leads into Brick Lane. It's well past time for lunch. On the corner of Hanbury and Commercial streets, I find Poppie's, one of the city's newer chippys. I'm intrigued to try it because it's part of a small chain, which is unusual; most British fishand-chip shops are independent.
Inside, Poppie's is a boisterous mixture of the traditional and harmlessly ersatz. A huge frying range dominates the main room; a shiny, steel staple of fish and chip shops, the range is where the food is cooked and sometimes stored. It's common to see a tantalising array of already cooked items, such as fish and battered sausages, sitting in a glass compartment at eye-level.
I order cod, the classic choice in the South of England. It's on the small side, but well-cooked — crisp, crunchy batter, moist and clearly fresh inside. And although the chips are a little pallid for my taste, a gentle buzz of happiness suggests other diners do not share my reservations.
Many of the best chip shops, like Brockley's Rock, are based outside of the city centre. None has a better reputation than Olley's, which has just been named in the 10-strong national shortlist for the annual National Fish & Chip Awards. It's in Herne Hill, a well-to-do South London neighbourhood; I arrive hungry, just after 1pm.
Harry Niazi, who opened Olley's in 1987, is a stickler for quality. The chips are blanched and then fried, "which gives a crispy shell on the outside and makes them soft and fluffy on the inside," he tells me. The fish is sustainable; it's all fried in sunflower oil with a touch of rosemary essence, which, Niazi says, ensures that the batter — made with flour and water — isn't greasy.
The cod is moist and flaky, and the chips are cooked to a crisp, golden turn. Mushy peas — more commonly found on menus in the North — provide a soft, gently flavoursome accompaniment.
I hurry on, as there's another new shop that I'm particularly keen to try. Sutton and Sons, a small chain in East London, has just opened the capital's first vegan-only chip shop in Hackney.
As I approach, two middle-aged women come bowling out of Sutton and Sons, one apologising to the other: "I saw the sign and I thought it would be ordinary fish and chips!"
I'm not put off. The number of customers in this hole-in-the-wall place and, more important, the smell, are encouraging. "Vegan fish" is offered in three forms here. I order battered banana blossom, which has been marinated in seaweed and the marine vegetable samphire, to take away. It's a wonderful surprise; gently flavoursome, with a texture not unlike artichoke heart, and very good with a squeeze of lemon. Is it like fish? Not really. But it's delicious.