THRIV­ING CUL­TURE OF FISH AND CHIPS

The East African - - FOOD -

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.

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