In Lon­don, eat your way through the his­tory — and fu­ture — of fish and chips

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Travel - By Will Hawkes

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,

shtetl

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.

eye-level.

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.

WILL HAWKES/PHO­TOS FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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