In London, eat your way through the history — and future — of fish and chips
Frank Dobson Square is no place to linger. This brick-paved chunk of East London has seen better days, not least because its centerpiece, Dobson’s 1951 sculpture Woman With Fish, was vandalized beyond repair and removed in 2002. Those sitting on the benches around the square have only its former home, a forlorn metal plinth, to look at now.
I haven’t come to see the sculpture, though, or its plinth. I’m searching for something that records this locale’s unique place in British history. This is where the world’s first fish-and-chips shop, Malin’s, was founded in the early 1860s.
There are rival claimants, of course, but this appears the most likely origin of Britain’s iconic dish. “I can’t find any alternative, really,” Panikos Panayi, author of “Fish and Chips: A History,” tells me. “In one sense I can’t see any reason to disbelieve it; on the other hand, fishand-chips shops don’t really take off until the beginning of the 20th century. I couldn’t find many fish-and-chips shops that existed between Malin’s and then.”
Despite the arrival of Indian and Chinese takeaways, fried chicken shops, and the emergence of London as a bullishly selfconfident “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 neighborhood, Whitechapel. It’s now the center of Britain’s largest Bangladeshi community, but between the mid-19th century and World War II, this was Jewish London, a
called Whitechapel. That’s why fish and chips emerged here — or at least the fish part, which was bequeathed to Britain by Jewish immigrants. (The origin of chips is more opaque, but France seems most probable.) “Fried fish is indisputably Jewish,” Panayi says. “All the evidence points to that. When I was researching the book,
A plate of cod and chips, plus side portions of mushy peas and tartar sauce, at Olley’s, a fish-and-chips restaurant in Herne Hill, South London.
I found loads of references to Jewish fish fryers, both men and women.”
Malin’s may be long gone, but there’s still good food in Whitechapel. There’s a trio of sweet shops, all in a row, selling vibrantly colored treats like
(deep-fried batter soaked in syrup),
(milk-based dumplings) and (a rich cheesecake). At Panshi, a Bangladeshi restaurant, samosas are piled enticingly in the window.
On the corner of Hanbury and Commercial streets, I find Poppie’s, one of the city’s newer chippys. It’s part of a small chain, which is unusual; most British fish-and-chips 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 fishand-chips shops, the range is where the food is cooked and sometimes stored. It’s common to see a tantalizing array of already cooked items, such as fish and battered sausages, sitting in a glass compartment at
jalebi jamun gulab ras malai
Poppie’s, a restaurant in Spitalfields, London. One of the city’s newer chippies, it’s part of a small chain, which is unusual. Most such eateries are independent.
On the walls are pictures of the old East End, caricatures of famous personalities (including, naturally, Winston Churchill), newspaper front pages and a thin strip running around the room containing translations of cockney rhyming slang.
I order cod, the classic choice in the South of England. (Northerners prefer haddock; a friend from the northern fishing town of Grimsby told me that cod is a “bottomfeeder,” which is why they send it elsewhere.) It’s on the small side, but wellcooked — 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.
Fish and chips being what it is, it’s a day before I have sufficient space for any more. That’s appropriate, as Friday is the day to eat fish and chips.
Many of the best chip shops, like my local chippy, Brockley’s Rock, are based outside of the city center; this is homey food, after all, not haute cuisine. None has a better reputation than Olley’s, which has just been named in the 10strong national shortlist for the annual National Fish & Chip Awards. It’s in Herne Hill, an increasingly wellto-do South London neighborhood.
It’s quickly clear that if the interior of Olley’s — with its rustic brick walls and wooden interior windows — is idiosyncratic in the extreme, then the food adheres to the best traditions. 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 simply, with flour and water — isn’t greasy.
Niazi, with his Turkish Cypriot background, is part of a grand tradition. Greek Cypriots are prominent in the trade in the South and Midlands, while Italians have long been associated with the dish in Scotland; Chinese-run shops are common too. Immigrants not only created fish and chips, but they’ve done much to sustain its popularity too.
Few people, though, do it as well as Olley’s. 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 flavorsome accompaniment.
I take a 10-minute train ride into London Victoria station, aiming to work off my sizable lunch with a long walk. I pass a handful of interesting fish-andchips shops on the way — the Rock and Sole Plaice in Covent Garden, for example, or the Fryer’s Delight in Holborn. Plenty of pubs serve the dish too, although that’s a modern thing. Historically, the pub was reserved for drinking.
Sutton and Sons, a small chain in East London, has just opened the capital’s first vegan-only chip shop in Hackney, which is, like many East London neighborhoods, caught between a working-class tradition and the rapid onset of gentrification. It’s a place where you’ll find real estate agents offering twobedroom The Fryer’s Delight in London’s Holborn neighborhood.
flats for the equivalent of a million dollars cheek-by-jowl with workmen in the cafes. Vegan fish and chips, I guess, fits somewhere in between the two, but not everyone is convinced. As I approach, two middle-aged women come bowling out of Sutton and Sons, one apologizing 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 flavorsome, 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.
By the time I arrive at Hackney Central station to get my train home, it’s all gone. It’s heartening, I suppose, that fish and chips retains enough cultural cachet for a vegan version to be thought desirable, and even better that it’s so good. The next step, I think, is for London to start celebrating this simple native dish — and I know exactly where to start. There’s an empty plinth in Frank Dobson Square that could do with a nice new statue.