Fish and Chips

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

fish and chips may fairly be said to constitute one of the national dishes of england (and scotland), but does not have a very long history. The combination, in its familiar form, is thought to date back to the 1860s, in Lancashire or in London. However, the two component parts had existed separately for more than half a century before then, and it would be a rash historian who would deny the possibility that they had joined forces, somewhere, somewhat sooner.

Fried fish, sold in pieces, cold, must have been established as a standard street food in London by the 1840s or earlier. As Picton (1966) remarks, Dickens mentions a ‘fried fish warehouse’ in Oliver Twist, published in instalments 1837–9. At that time the fish was sold with a chunk of bread. Mayhew, who wrote his famous survey of London Labour and the London Poor in the 1850s and early 1860s, painted a lively portrait of a fried fish seller, stating that there were about 300 of them in London, and that one of them had been in the trade for seventeen years. As Claudia Roden (1996) observes, there was a strong Jewish tradition of frying fish in batter and eating it cold. And it was ‘fried fish in the Jewish fashion’ which Thomas Jefferson discovered when he came to London and which was included in the first Jewish cookbook in English (1846). Roden also remarks that the National Federation of Fish Friers presented in 1968 a plaque to Malin’s of Bow in London’s East End as the oldest fried fish and chips establishment still in business; and speculates that the combination represented a coming together in London (or wherever) of E. European Jewish immigrants (for the fish) and Irish immigrants (for the potato).