“The British Empire was created as a by-product of generations of desperate Englishmen roaming the world in search of a decent meal.”
“Salt and vinegar?” “Excuse me?”, I had been reading the announcements and advertisements on the notice board in my local chippy and was therefore a bit absent minded. “Salt and vinegar? On your chips?” Ah yes, there it was again. The first time I got asked this question was many years ago on a backpack tour around England. I had stopped for lunch in a small seaside town and fancied something ‘proper’ instead of a sandwich when I got asked the same question. “Vinegar? On my chips? The stuff I usually put on my salad with oil? The same stuff I have on occasion used to clean my windows with? Seriously?” I didn’t say this out loud but the thoughts crossed my mind. Well, why not, when in Rome… “Vinegar, please, but no salt. Thanks.” And I haven’t looked back since. You have to keep in mind that I come from a region in Germany where we eat “Pommes rot-weiß” meaning “chips red-white” – chips with ketchup and mayonnaise – so having vinegar on my chips was a new concept to me. (And to avoid any confusion, chips are what we call Pommes Frittes/Pommes (fries) in Germany and the German ‘Chips’ are crisps over here.)
British food in general still has a reputation of being boring, bland, boiled to death and not necessarily healthy even though this country has given us Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and Chicken tikka masala (a curry) amongst other culinary delights. But if you ask around what’s typical for the UK, many people will answer fish & chips – if only after naming the main tourist sights (like Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Tower Bridge) and anything red (buses, phone boxes, letter boxes, Queen’s guards).
And it’s not surprising. There are around 10.500 fish & chip shops (chippies) in the UK and British consumers eat some 382 million portions of fish and chips every year. That’s six servings for every man, woman and child, which makes it the most popular fast food in the country. The National Fish and Chip Awards crown the best chippy each year. To try the best ones you currently have to travel quite far though, as the 2015 winner is Frankie’s, Britain’s most northerly fish and chip café and takeaway, way up north in the small town of Brae in the Shetlands. And there is even an entry in the Guinness World Records for the largest serving of fish and chips which weighed a staggering 47.75 kg and was achieved by Fish and Chips@ LTD in London on 30 July 2012. However, you don’t get your meal wrapped in newspaper anymore, as it was considered unhealthy because of the printing ink, but instead in polystyrene boxes (which I thought were extinct since we started taking recycling and the environment seriously in Germany) or wrapped in other paper which has the benefit of soaking up some of the excess oil. Whereas the most common name for a chippy is ‘Mr Chips’, some names can be rather funny with brilliant but terrible punning names like ‘A fish called Rhondda’, ‘The Fryery’, ‘The Codfather’, ‘Good Frydays’, ‘Fintastic’ and ‘Tasty Plaice’ to name just a few.
There is just one thing I can’t quite get my head round and that’s mushy peas which you can have with your fish & chips. It’s probably one of the food world’s most unattractive but accurate titles for a side dish. Basically they are dried marrowfat peas soaked and simmered until they form a thick green lumpy soup. I have read somewhere that they have been referred to as “Yorkshire caviar” which makes me feel slightly sorry for Yorkshire, to be honest. But maybe I’m not British enough yet to fully appreciate them.
Which brings me to another dish that has “Yorkshire” in its name. But that’s a story for another time…