More than you need to know about fish and chips

Janice Wald at Mostly Blogging called my attention to the role fish and chips play in the British diet, so let’s see what you can learn about them from a vegetarian.

The Federation of British Friers (who are not to be confused with friars, who may have eaten fish on Fridays but otherwise have nothing to do with the story) writes that “fish and chips are the undisputed National dish of Great Britain.”

Yes, they do capitalize national for no better reason than that it matters to them. It’s a British thing, capitalizing words they like.

No, they’re not objective; these are the people who fry fish for a living, or at least represent the businesses that fry fish. But that stuff about fish and chips being the national dish agrees with pretty every other source I checked. Historic U.K. claims, “Fish, chips and mushy peas! There is nothing more British than fish and chips.”

Yeah, they’re asking a lot of that exclamation point, and the poor little thing didn’t manage to generate the excitement they were looking for, but I’ve done a bit of freelance writing myself and I cranked out copy that was just as dismal. So let’s just nod knowingly and move on.

Irrelevant photo: a surfer, riding a rock.

In fact, we’ll move on so fast that we’ll skid right past the mushy peas for now. I’ll come back to them. What you need to know for now is that everyone says fish and chips are as British as it’s possible to be.

Except for beer, because in a recent post I quoted an ad supplement that claimed eccentricity, beer, apologies, and tea were the essential elements of Britishness. It didn’t mention fish and chips. It all goes to show that you shouldn’t take anyone’s word for the essentials of Britishness.

And all the more so since neither source mentioned curry, although people here often say, “Nothing’s as British as a curry.” It’s meant to have an ironic edge, curry being a cultural import and all, unlike the deeply British fish and chips, but it turns out fish and chips also came from someplace else. They—or is fish and chips an it? Singular fish, singular dish, plural chips. It’s messy. Anyway, they or it either were or was brought here by (gasp) immigrants.

And the immigrants in question were, in case anyone isn’t getting this, foreigners, every last one of them.

So what are people who want their British culture pure to do? Give up both curry and fish and chips? What’ll be left?

Maybe a kebab. Or a plate of spaghetti. Or a nice cup of tea.

National purity’s hard to find. If you locate any, send up a flare, would you?

The BBC (which covers all the important stories) reports that “fried fish was introduced into Britain by Jewish refugees from Portugal and Spain. The fish was usually sold by street sellers from large trays hung round their necks. Charles Dickens refers to an early fish shop or ‘fried fish warehouse’ in Oliver Twist (1839) where the fish generally came with bread or baked potatoes.”

Fried fish was (were?) introduced in the seventeenth century—roughly the same time as fried potatoes. (The potato was brought from the Americas earlier, by Sir Walter Raleigh. Unless it was brought by Sir Francis Drake. You can find claims for both.) It was probably the French who first thought of deep frying them.

So that’s yet another bunch of foreigners messing with British cooking.

Chips, by the way, is American for what the British call crisps. Sort of. We (the we here being Americans) usually add “potato,” so it’s potato chips. Chips is British for what Americans call french fries.

Are you still with me? Am I? I went over that three times to make sure I hadn’t gotten lost.

Some of the sources I read are clear about the immigrant role in hooking Britain on fish and chips, but a few manage to run through the entire history without mentioning it. I’d be amused if immigration weren’t such a charged issue just now.

The north and south of Britain both claim to have invented the combination of fish and chips. According to Wikipedia (when I checked; it will have changed by now), “Some credit a northern entrepreneur called John Lees. As early as 1863, it is believed he was selling fish and chips out of a wooden hut at Mossley market in industrial Lancashire.

“Others claim the first combined fish ‘n’ chip shop was actually opened by a Jewish immigrant, Joseph Malin, within the sound of Bow Bells in East London around 1860.

“However it came about, the marriage quickly caught on. At a time when working-class diets were bleak and unvaried, fish and chips were a tasty break from the norm.

“Outlets sprung up across the country and soon they were as much a part of Victorian England as steam trains and smog.

“Italian migrants passing through English towns and cities saw the growing queues and sensed a business opportunity, setting up shops in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

“To keep prices down, portions were often wrapped in old newspaper–a practice that survived as late as the 1980s when it was ruled unsafe for food to come into contact with newspaper ink without grease-proof paper in between.”

During both world wars, fish and chips were considered so essential to civilian morale that protecting the supplies was a government priority. During World War II, they were one of the few foods that were never rationed, although that doesn’t mean they were always available. When word got out that the local chippie had fish, queues formed and people were willing to wait an hour or more.

I’m not sure if fish and chips are still considered primarily working class or if they’ve gone upmarket. I do know that they’re not as popular as they once were, partly because, as stocks of cod and haddock have been depleted by overfishing, the price has gone up and partly because people have become leery about eating too much fried food. But there are still some still 8,500 fish and chip shops in U.K.

And here we circle back to mushy peas, because all or most of them sell mushy peas as well.

I think. Listen, I’m a vegetarian. I don’t poke my nose into fish and chip shops if I can help it, and I generally can. I’m taking other people’s word for this.

If you’re not British, you’re asking, “Mushy what?”

Peas. They’re dried peas, soaked and then boiled with a little salt, a little sugar, and some baking soda, called bicarbonate of soda here, until they form a lumpy, green moosh and taste of nothing in particular.

Why would anybody eat that, never mind do it? Well, it’s food. If you eat it, it will fill your stomach. And if you grow up on it, you’ll learn to love it. Either that or you’ll run screaming every time they’re mentioned.

When I told my friend R. that Wild Thing and I had worked up our courage and tried mushy peas, she told me people eat them with fish and chips, not on their own. And given the British habit of packing a bit of every food on the plate on the end of their fork, that means they can count of the fish to lend the peas some taste.

How do Americans eat? One food per bite unless the dish itself mixes them the way, say, stew does, or a mixed salad. No, I don’t know why. I also don’t know why the British eat a bit of everything at once. Honestly, I’m no longer sure why anyone does anything. Humans are hard to make sense of.

By the time R. told me that mushy peas weren’t meant to be eaten on their own, we’d each taken one lone bite and didn’t feel the need to try again. I may be a vegetarian and they may be vegetabilian, but I don’t go out of my way to eat oak leaves and grass either, and they’re equally vegetabilian.

I’ve now told you everything I know about fish and chips and mushy peas–and more.

Could the next topic someone throws at me be about something that’s more clearly either singular or plural? Please?


100 thoughts on “More than you need to know about fish and chips

  1. Not sure if you would consider this your next worthy topic, but I believe fish and chips has been supplanted by chicken tikka masala. Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary, in 2001 claimed: “Chicken tikka masala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences. Chicken tikka is an Indian dish. The masala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy”.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I remember when I visited my vegetarian (but fish-eating) friend in Andover, she brought fish and chips home from work once like nobody’s business. I have never again seen so much grease. Don’t remember trying the mushy (mashy, meshy) peas though. I like peas. I like fish if it’s not that greasy. But I could live without French fries happily ever after.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Add vinegar, salt and black pepper to the mushy peas to bring out their flavour. Loose peas would be more difficult to eat from newspaper. Just pick up a chip and use it to shovel a dollop of mushy peas to your mouth.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I remember getting fish and chips wrapped in newspaper from our local chippie on a friday night. I tried recreating this at home and it just didn’t have the same effect!
    visiting you today from the bloggers pit stop x

    Liked by 2 people

    • Funny how that works, isn’t it? When I was a kid, I loved hamburgers (I’ve long since gone veggie, but this was back in prehistory). When my mother made hamburgers, though, they never tasted like the ones we got in cafes and lunch joints. Same meat. Same buns. Same ketchup. It’s still a mystery.

      Liked by 3 people

      • When I worked in a (crisp) chips factory for three weeks, the store brand chips were fried and packed first each morning, followed by the name brand chips. It seems the local people who were accustomed to buying the local store brand were accustomed to the taste of not quite stale, but used, grease…I think that’s what’s so hard to duplicate at home in a fast food hamburger.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Mushy peas are awful!!

    I like peas…but they shouldn’t be mushed!!

    When they are made they are boiled (or whatever) for so long that they lose all colour and the green has to be added in again later. This is why the green looks so unnatural! Left to their own devices mushy peas would be grey!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Once again, I’ve learned something here that I probably could have done without knowing. Especially since time has made it irrelevant. A long time ago, a fast food franchise sprang up in the US – Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips. ATF&C to me and my best friend. The fish and chips were served in a paper boat-like container with a layer of waxy look-a-like newspaper. I never knew why it looked like newspaper. I think ATF&C is gone now, at least around here it is.

    In their signature meal, you got two pieces of fish, some fries (chips) and two hush puppies. Now I’m curious, do you have hush puppies in England? I would think they’d best mushy peas any day of the week.

    Peas or no peas, this was a fun read.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. When I lived in London Ontario, a Fish and Chips restaurant offered mushy peas on the side. According to a sidebar in the menu, it is a delicacy enjoyed by folks in Newfoundland, if I recall correctly. I never tried them. Now, I don’t imagine I every will.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, a couple of people have told me I didn’t give them a fair chance. I doubt I ever will, but it restores my faith in the country at large to know there’s more to ’em than I thought.


  8. I love fish & Chips and recall a shop in Kearny, NJ (USA) that served them in newspaper as late as 1984, which was the last year that I lived in that area. Since moving South, I have not been able to find “authentic” fish and chips, only commercial attempts at mediocrity.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Fish and Chips not native to England,uh? The next thing you will be telling us is that pizza isn’t American. Well, it is. Food writers have tried to pin that one on the Italians and the good folks from Italy are having none of it.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Helen,
    The decline of Britain started when they no longer wrapped fish and chips in the Times. ;) That was, as they would have saud in “Yes, Prime M inster”, the thin wedge.
    Fish and chips from plastic boxes is as bad as having not a pint, but half a liter of beer. Thank God it gas not yet come to that! ;)
    Enjoy your day,

    Liked by 2 people

    • Since you bring up the pint of beer, I wish I remembered the song lyrics that run through all the insane British measures involved with beer. They include the firkin, for whatever that information is worth to you–40.91481 litres. And a nipperkin–one-half of a quarter-gill, one-eighth of a gill, or one thirty-second of an English pint. In other words, not much.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wasn’t a firkin one a kind of a barrel? I seem to remember the word “nipperkin”, but I don’t think I’ve ever known what it means. As to a gill: I have my very own exprience with that measure. But that’s a longer story. A funny one, though.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Judging by the equivalents I found, I’d guess the firkin is a barrel, and the nipperkin sounds so small that I’m not you’d notice that you drank it. But none of them–firkin, nipperkin, or gill–are measure I’ve run into in real life. My best guess is that they’re obsolete.


  11. How can you say that mushy peas taste of nothing in particular? They taste of nasty. which is one level down from Nasty, and two levels down from Nasty! – with an exclamation mark. So, you see, nasty is quite a subtle flavour.
    The texture of mushy peas is nasty to the power of two, and the appearance is Nasty to the power of three, so on balance, it’s not all that bad – as compared to tripe and onions, boiled ox heart, or, indeed, mud and sticks; the likely original diet of the British, but as British blood was watered down by Saxons and all of the invaders that followed, it’s unlikely that there’s any such thing as a true Brit. Therefore, I put it to you that Britishness is no more than a state of mind.
    However, with your American accent, you may not be allowed to join our exclusive inclusive hypocritical little club – and please don’t try; you’d be far less fun.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I promise. What I can’t promise, since I think I already did it by mistake, is not to start a civil war between the supporters of mushy peas and the haters of mushy peas. So far the conversation’s mostly going through me, so no one’s accused anyone else of unBritish taste buds, but it’s something I’m worried about.

      I’ll recommend mud and sticks if I have to.


  12. I think mushy peas are a family new innovation (although they’re not, of course, since they were often part of medieval pottages). When I was a child in the 60s we only had fish and chips (or chips and saveloy) and we didn’t have them very often. Even then they were getting pricey. I don’t remember them being very greasy, though.

    When I went out to a local pub for dinner a couple of years ago they were serving a vegetarian version with battered halloumi and fries. There were mushy peas as well, but we’ll cast a veil over that. The batter halloumi was wonderful.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Getting to eat food from a chippy was a big deal treat when I was wee. As an aside, I have noted that English chippies tend to very much concentrate on offering a variety of fish to choose from whereas in Scotland the fish option was invariably haddock (which I love) but then there were other things you could select, such as sausage, white pudding, or haggis. My husband thought deep fried haggis was the most amazing thing ever when he first moved to Scotland. But I digress …. chippy food being a treat and not something we ate regularly probably elevates the taste memory from the reality. I am, however, a bit of a chippy snob. I could never abide it when the food was dripping with oil and grease. The oil had to be just the right temperature to quickly fry everything without it becoming claggy. And the chips had to be soft on the inside but crisp on the outside. I always loved to douse my fish and chips in malt vinegar and, on the east coast of Scotland, we were always offered “salt and sauce?” and the sauce was a bit like brown sauce but much more vinegary and runny. Yes please! Most of my fish and chip experiences were of eating in the car, British picnic style, on a blustery day somewhere in Britain we were visiting or unwrapping the parcels of newspaper back in our touring caravan and the aroma of steamy vinegar sending us off to sleep at night after our feast.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. If mushy peas were made into something like split pea soup then I might consider them, otherwise I like my peas to be tender and green and round and sweet, preferably in a salad. As to fish and whatever we are calling those potato forms-one of my favorite things to eat, but no vinegar, only tarter sauce…which makes me wonder- who invented that condiment?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tartar sauce (I just looked it up) appeared in cookbooks in the nineteenth century, but no one person seems to get the credit. Ketchup, on the other hand, was invented by James Mease in 1812, although his included brandy and didn’t have vinegar and sugar, which (I gather) are part of the standard recipe today.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. What is a hush puppy? Apart from a shoe?

    I cannot remember having mushy peas on offer in a fish and chip shop: gherkins..yes. Pickled onions also…but not mushy peas.
    They must be a relatively recent addition…though I remember that the egregious Mandelson mistook them for guacamole on one of his rare visits to his constituency in the North East. Before he tasted them that is.

    Have you ever tried making split pea soup…you can make it without the ham if vegetarian…and if made thick enough it can double as pease pudding as in the nursery rhyme.
    Pease pudding hot, pease pudding cold…pease pudding in the pot nine days old.
    Not that ours lasts that long…all depends on the herbs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hush puppies are basically deep-fried dough. Very healthy. They use cornmeal (translation: maize meal).

      I used to make a vegetarian split pea soup, which I like but which Wild Thing wasn’t wild about so I gradually got out of the habit. Add ham and she’d eat it happy, but then I wouldn’t. Getting some taste into vegetarian split pea soup isn’t easy. If you’re not careful, you end up with mushy peas.

      I’d forgotten that guacamole story. I love it. It says so much in such a short space.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Eel pie? What about eel pie? First time I visited London I was shocked to see eel pie shops. When I discovered my English friend loved eel pie I almost had to unfriend her. She has many virtues that counter this one deficit, however, so we’re still good friends thirty years later.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I admit I’ve never gone looking for eel pie shops, and on top of that I don’t spend a lot of time in London, but I’ve never noticed an eel pie shop. Maybe I just have selective vision.


      • From the 04/18/2017 online edition of Saveur, ”
        Stuart Freedman
        “Eels, long a staple of London food,” photojournalist Stuart Freedman writes, “were synonymous with the city and its people. In a capital dominated and bisected by the River Thames, they were once cheap and nutritious.”
        Which is how eel became a quintessential food of the eel, pie, and mash[ed potato] shop, a centuries-old staple of London’s working class that is now the subject of a new book, The Englishman and the Eel.”
        Article includes photograph of eel being sliced for pie– a photo I really really did not want to see. Interesting article but sheesh!
        Thanks for your blog, I so enjoy it!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think there is still one in Greenwich near the Cutty Sark. I think that the whole point of eating the pie and accompanying mash is the liquor..the eel cooking water flavoured with lots of parsley.
        I remember them in the east end of London when I was a student….but preferred my eels smoked.

        Liked by 1 person

  17. Australians love fish and chips too, but without the mushy peas (thank god). Do you have potato cakes in either Britain or the States, or are they an Australian culinary invention? They are thin slices of potato, battered and deep-fried. Of course they have different names in different states…..but their real name is ‘potato cakes’, because that is what I call them.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I’ve never eaten mushy peas but have had their close relative processed peas (and I presume mushy peas are just processed peas that have been made… um… mushy. Anyway, the reason I’ve not eaten them is because I’m originally from south east England and they are from north England. If they are, indeed, now in all fish and chip shops then… eek!
    I love chips but can no longer eat them as I have an intolerance to potatoes (amongst other things.) So… when a chip comes my way, I look at it longingly and have to say ‘no’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The info about fish and chips is as accurate as I can manage. But I do worry someone will take me seriously about the pizza. One of the things I love about blogging is that I don’t have an editor, and it’s made me reckless and funnier than I am with one. Unfortunately, it means I get a little wild sometimes.


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    • Mutton’s as native as anything else. It all gets kind of murky when you go back far enough. But I have to confess, I’ve lost track of what we’re talking about. I end up carrying on a handful of conversations at once and occasionally have no idea what one or two or six of them are about.

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  24. I learned a few things – interesting. But never in the years I lived in England did anyone say mushy peas was meant to be eaten with fish n chips. ICK. Come to think of it, I’d never come across mushy peas while I lived there, though I know all about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can only repeat what I’ve been told. My friend Rosy was shocked that I tried eating them on their own. If she’s anything like typical (and which of us is, really), then they’re not meant to be eaten on their own at all–you have to add them to a forkful of camouflage, so you don’t taste a thing.


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