Warning: Do not read when hungry.
British cuisine is utterly delicious. I mean who can deny a full English breakfast or a scone with Cornish clotted cream and strawberry jam with your afternoon tea? Or maybe you’d prefer a traditional Sunday dinner with all the trimmings covered in gravy followed by a banofee pie (yum!)
Unsurprisingly, it turns out that some of our British cuisine is actually not all that British as our recipes have been affected by food imports from around the world. In Eating the Empire: Intersections of Food, cookery and Imperialism in Eighteenth Century Britain Troy Bickham askes ‘when a woman in Edinburgh drank a cup of tea, or a family in Bath sat down to a meal of Indian curry, did they consider the cultures they might be mimicking or how these products reached Britain?’ This is still true as so much of our foods are imported and most people don’t know, or care, where they are actually from.
Being a foodie myself, I absolutely love all kinds of food and love to try new dishes. However, during my year studying abroad in Hawaii I began to really miss the tastes of home! It was interesting trying to describe ‘British’ foods to the American’s I met, who couldn’t grasp the concept of a sausage roll or a Yorkshire pudding. They seemed particularly interested to learn that traditionally fish and chips are served in a newspaper! I wanted to tell them the history as there is nothing more British than fish, chips and mushy peas. So I’ve researched the famous dish to tell you all about how it came about. Can you believe that the combination of fish and chips had not been thought of before the 1860s?! And it is all thanks to Joseph Malin who opened the first fish and chip shop in 1860.
Prior to the marriage of battered fish and chips, fish consumption in Britain can be dated back to the first century. However, thanks to the discovery of the New World, British people were encouraged to eat more fish as there was a ready supply of cheap cod from the North Atlantic. Fish consumption is evident in recipes such as those in The Compleat Cook, a recipe book from 1694, which includes instructions for frying fish or boiling fish but there is no recipe for battered fish as we know it.
Battered fish has origins from the Jewish community in Britain. Hannah Gasse in the Art of Cookery, first published in 1747, includes a recipe to preserve fish ‘the Jews’ way’ which resulted in a dish similar to battered fish, despite the aim being only to preserve the fish. Joseph Malin, as mentioned above as being credited with opening the first fish and chip shop in Britain, was also a Jewish immigrant.
Despite the early mentions of fish in recipe books, the spread of fried fish did not come till later, possibly due to technologically advancements. There are numerous references to fried fish in the nineteenth century, for example by Henry Mayhew, who observed and documented the working class in London, who counted between ‘250 and 350 purveyors of fried fish and claimed that this product had become available over many years.’
Yet the revolution came when fried fish was combined with chips. As popularity of fried fish grew, the sale of potatoes was also developing. Fish and chip shops spread quickly across Britain. It has been estimated that by 1906 London had as many as 1,200 fish and chip shops!
Fish and chips increasingly became labelled as the British national dish. In 1929 a letter to the editor of the Hull Daily Mail insisted that ‘fired fish and chips are a national institution. What would thousands of people of in Hull for supper if it was not for fried fish shops?’ Philip Harben, one of the first TV cooks, recognised fish and chips as the national dish of Britain in his cookbook Traditional Dishes of Britainpublically associating food with nationality.
I was proud to tell my friends abroad about my national dish. Being away from home made me realise just how many foods are associated only with Britain. Whilst most people knew about traditional fish and chips they were completely baffled by banofee pie! But I’ll save that for another blog post.
Panikos Panayi, Fish and Chips: A History, (London, 2014), p. 15.
 ibid. p.18.
 ibid. p.28.
 ibid. p.37.
 Hull Daily Mail, 20 December 1929
 Phillip Harben, Traditional Dishes of Britain (London, 1953), p.115.