Most people will agree that you can’t consider yourself truly American unless you’ve eaten a hotdog while sat in a baseball stadium. As a temporary Brit, I’ve made it my goal to eat like a local in order to truly get the full experience. Sure, England has their tea and crumpets… But what “ballpark franks” are to the States, fish and chips is to the English.
This world-famous British delicacy—deep fried fish (usually cod or haddock) paired with piping hot fried potato chips—is quintessential to English culture. I’ve been living in Newcastle Upon Tyne in Northern England for just over a month now, but it wasn’t until I squeezed a lemon over a steaming plate of fish and chips while sipping a cold pint of Newcastle Ale that I finally felt like I was starting to fit in here. I find it ironic, however, that the dish on which I based my assimilation into British culture (which happens to be Gordon Ramsay’s favorite comfort food) wasn’t really even of English origin at all…
In the same peculiar way that “America’s” prized frankfurts are of German descent, England’s beloved duo is actually from Portugal. When crypto-Jews (also known as Portuguese Maranos) immigrated to London in the 16th century, they were practicing under the guise of Christianity. The Jews would fry up their fish on Friday—Catholicism’s day of fish—and cleverly save it to eat cold the following day on the Jewish Sabbath, when their laws forbid them from cooking. Pretty smart, huh?
Coincidentally, around the same time period the fried potato chip was being eaten as a substitute for fried fish. It’s unclear where the fried potato was actually invented but it is widely believed that Belgian housewives started throwing fish-shaped chunks of potato into their fryers in a desperate attempt to put food on the table during the winter when the rivers froze over. And thus, the chip was born. (Halleujiah!)
It took a century or two for these trends to catch on, but they slowly gained popularity across Europe. The marriage of these two greasy goodies is definitely to the credit of England, although the exact time and place is widely disputed. Most people will tell you the fish and the chip were first peddled as a pair in East London, by a 13-year-old Jewish immigrant named Joseph Malin who joined his family’s fried fish recipe with some chips and sold them together on the street around 1860. Regardless of where the dynamic duo were first marketed, their novelty quickly gained footing around the country and is today known as the most popular British takeaway dish.
Food is undeniably one of the biggest components of what makes up a culture. Eating, especially in a shared or public setting, is a ritual of communion. Whether it’s hotdogs at the baseball game or fish and chips at the pub, food is what brings people together— whether you’re a lifer, just passing through, or somewhere in between…
And no matter what the story is behind the Brit’s favorite dish, I’m just grateful to have had the chance to take a bite out of England in the best way I know how: with tartar sauce and a side of peas.