Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Scrumptious English Fish and Chips

I remember when I was small going through Apak’s Andy Capp Book, a comic book featuring a bloke by that name.  In it, I remember seeing Andy Capp eating something hot and steaming out of a newspaper wrap. It made me rather curious. I didn’t know it then, but now I know Andy was having his fish and chips.

If there was one food which reminds me of England it is fish and chips. It is the quintessential English food. Typical of most food popular with the masses, the fish and chips started out as a working-class staple, especially popular with factory workers.

Fish and chips shops – or chippies as they are fondly called in the UK – began to spring up across the nation beginning the middle of the 19th century, during Victorian England. Diverse versions exist on the story of where the first fish and chips shop was opened in England. Some say it was in London. Yet another version said it was in Mossley which was just around the corner from my place of study, Manchester.

Fish and chips basically consist of deep fried battered fish and potato chips. It is prepared by first coating the fish in flour by dipping it into a batter consisting of flour mixed with liquid. The fish is then deep fried in oil –  most commonly vegetable oil  – until the batter turns golden brown. Cod and haddock were the most commonly used fish for fish and chips. Other fish such as plaice and seabass were also used, but I noticed that all of them were from the white fish variety. My personal favourite was always the cod.

The fried fish is accompanied with a generous portion of hot fried chips. Unlike the American-style French fries though, English chips were usually thicker – about the size and length of one’s little finger. This made them soft and fluffy as compared to French fries. The fish and chips combination is then served in a wrapping of old newspapers. I came to know later that this was to keep them nice and warm.

Although various condiments were available like tomato sauce, tartar sauce and so on, traditionally, the fish and chips were taken with salt and vinegar. The salt and vinegar was usually sprinkled over the fish and chips at the time it was served.

If one were to take away his fish and chips, just before the shopkeeper fully wraps it, it was customary for him to ask his customer “would you like salt and vinegar, then?”

At that point, I would always answer “yes, please” – because that’s the way I liked my fish and chips – and the salt and vinegar would be duly and swiftly sprinkled onto my fish and chips.

As I opened up the wrapping of the steaming hot fish and chips, I could just smell the aroma of the fish mixed with a whiff of vinegar. The batter would be crispy and crunchy but yet oily. As I pinched the fish, the crispy batter will crumble and expose the fish flesh inside which was white, soft and moist. With a quickly-said – and a barely audible – bismillah, the fish was already in my mouth. Mmm, absolutely scrumptious.

But one has to be careful, though. Newly prepared fish and chips is piping hot. If you were to hurriedly pop your steaming fish and chips in your mouth and try to swallow it down without thinking, you might end up with a burnt mouth and tongue. I know this for a fact since I have had the displeasure of finding it out myself – a few times, I might add. And I can assure you that it's not fun. So when consuming fish and chips served straight from the fryer, gobbling up your food like the Cookie Monster is definitely not a good idea.

A portion of fish and chips would have cost me just around one pound. Very cheap. And yet the combination of fish and potato chips was enough to make me feel full and to keep me going for at least half a day. I think that was one of the main reasons why fish and chips was very popular. It is such a filling food. But it was also a favourite for take aways and picnics because people could easily eat it without a knife and fork. It was a clear favourite for seaside day trippers and holiday makers. When I was staying in Blackpool, during the peak summer holiday season, the chippies along the promenade would shift into overdrive to feed the hungry tourists that flocked into town.

When I say that fish and chips was a popular take away, it is simply based on the observation that the fish and chips shops were on the corner of most streets. They were an ever-present feature of every local neighbourhood shopping area.

My first local chippy was on Norbreck Road where I’d been staying in Blackpool. It was called simply The Norbreck Chippy. It was just about fifty meters away from my flat. It had a glass shopfront and a glass door that allowed people visibility into the shop as they walked past by. Inside there was a fish and chips frying range with stainless steel finished panels and a counter as a serving area.  The were a few eat-in stools arranged for those who'd like to take their fish and chips at the shop.  

This was where I used to get my occasional supply of fish and chips. I remember that due to the heavy frying inside, whenever I entered the shop – especially during winter – my glasses would instantly get fogged up due to the temperature difference. Being a local chippy, it was not such a big shop, but it did its part just nicely to come to our rescue whenever my flat mates and I got a sudden attack of do-nothingness mood and decided against cooking. Sometimes, after coming home late from visiting a friend’s place, or after long hours slogging away at the study desk, it was a convenient source for a much welcomed late-night supper. 

In Manchester, while staying at the Cornbrook hall of residence, my local chippy was down at the Precinct Centre. It was a very small but popular chippy which was always full of hungry students and lecturers.

But there was also this place called Rusholme, a ten minutes bus ride away from Cornbrook. Rusholme was famous for its big number of Asian restaurants and take away food outlets. It was here that I learnt to enjoy fish and chips with curry. It was totally different experience and taste to the salt and vinegar version but still palatable and quite to my taste.

Away from home, fish and chips was my food of choice whenever I could find them. It was cheap and it was convenient to consume on the go. Once, on a university project trip Amsterdam, I still managed to get a fish and chips.

Chippies are a true friend of the masses, especially for the hungry and the not so well-heeled students like me. Travelling around UK, whenever I suddenly had the hunger pangs, I just followed the smells of  the fish and chips to get myself fed. For, the fish and chips has a distinctive aroma, and plus you could always smell it from half way up the street.

It remains one of my favourite smells of Britain.