Here’s a Brief History of Fish and Chips

We all have our favorite dishes and our favorite places to order those dishes, but do we know what’s behind them? Do we know the history and lineage of the recipe? Do we even care? In short, especially when that history is so rich and unexpected, the answer should be, yes.

Let’s take fish and chips, for example. It’s the ubiquitous pub order to go with a pint of Guinness, right? Sure, but it has a much deeper backstory than you’d imagine. In his book The Language of Food, Dan Jurafsky talks about this past, and we thought you should know about it.

Here is a brief history of this age-old meal.

Royal Beginning

It turns out the earliest versions of fish and chips found a soft spot in the hearts of kings and queens in the 6th century, but not in the location or form you might imagine. For starters, fish and chips didn’t even start with fish.

If you’re familiar with Persian civilization, you may know the Shahanshah (king of kings) of the early Persian empire had a special liking for sweet and sour stewed beef. Sikbaj was a beef stew with vinegar, which acted as a preserving agent for the meat. One of the early kings, Khosrau, loved it so much he asked all his chefs to prepare it, and the dish became a staple in palaces across the Persian empire and beyond.

The Switch from Beef to Fish

The key in the last sentence above is the word ‘beyond.’ Because the dish spread, it made its way to the coasts. Beef eventually led to a similar preparation, but with fish, in the 10th century when a Jewish merchant, Isaac Yehuda, returned to Oman with a special gift for his ruler: a vase full of fish.

Sailors took up cue and started making meals out of the fish rather than beef, which was clearly a rarity at sea. With their boats, they took the dish across the ocean to other parts of the world, and we now have dishes with their roots in this migration. For example, ceviche is part of this lineage, but instead of vinegar, lime and other citric acids were used to preserve and prepare. Other versions of the dish existed in Spain and Portugal. Think escabeche.

Names Can Be Deceptive

As we have this evolution on the fish side of the dish, there’s another story that takes place with the chips. French fries, as we commonly call those bits of fried potato, are not French at all. They have their origin in Belgium in the 17th century, possibly as a substitute for fish. When rivers froze, creative housewives began chopping potatoes into fishy shapes and dropping them into oil.

But who married fish and chips? Some say it was the brainchild of one John Lees, who started selling fish and chips from a wooden hut in Lancashire in 1863. It didn’t take long before shops sprung up all over the UK to sell this newfound diet combination.

history of fish and chips

How It Came to England

Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal began to settle in Holland and in cities like London. They brought recipes with them that included our original fish and vinegar referenced above, but they also brought a different technique. Frying. Fish was battered, soaked in vinegar, fried, and served cold.

Ashkenazi Jews began to move into these same neighborhoods in the 19th century. One of the earliest known fish and chips shops was opened by Ashkenazi Jewish proprietor Joseph Malin, combining the new fried potatoes with Jewish fried fish, and serving everything warm rather than cold. This is where our notion of fish and chips really began.

Add Newspaper to the Mix

In the second half of the 20th century, merchants attempted to keep the prices down by resorting to packaging this meal in used newspapers. However, this practice didn’t last for long because it was soon declared unhealthy. High-end restaurants threw their weight behind the concept of the newspaper and began wrapping fish and chips in designer newspapers. It was not uncommon to see celebrities hogging the streets looking cool with a packet of designer newspaper packet conspicuously nibbling from them. Today, you need grease-proof paper to pack this delicacy for your customers. You may also use disposable newspaper cones, but be sure that no fish nor chip comes into contact with the ink on them.

These events, along with others, helped shape our modern-day fish and chips favorites. As you prepare this meal for your customers, it’s fun to know the lineage it took to get there. Have fun with it, and share this interesting past.

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Topics: Foods & Trends