If ever there was a dish that managed to encapsulate British culture and cuisine, it would be fish and chips. This simple yet delicious dish is enjoyed all across the world, with around 382 million portions being sold every year by British fish and chip shops alone. Whether wrapped up in newspapers or served on a hot plate in a fancy restaurant, Brits just can’t seem to get enough.
But which came first, the fish or the chip?
Discover the History of Britain's National Dish
The tradition of eating fish coated with flour and deep fried in oil can be traced back to the early 1800’s, and is believed to have been introduced to Britain by Jewish immigrants from Spain and Portugal, through a dish they call pescado frito (fried fish). Charles Dickens referenced this style of cooking fish in his 1838 novel ‘Oliver Twist’.
Although potatoes were first brought back to Britain by Sir Thomas Harriot in 1586, the earliest record of chips being served dates back to 1860 in Oldham. The earliest known fish and chip shop is thought to have been opened by John Lees in Mossley, near Oldham. Mr Lees had started selling fish and chips from a wooden hut in the local market, but soon moved to a permanent shop, in which he inscribed “This is the first fish and chip shop in the world” in the shop window.
Almost 200 miles away in London, Joseph Malin, a Jewish immigrant, opened a fish and chip shop in Cleveland Way in the early 1860’s. To this day, the debate continues as to which shop opened first, and ultimately, who invented fish and chips.
Fish and chips soon became a stock meal among the working class, due to the rapid development of trawl fishing in the North Sea. During the late 1800’s, the expansion of railway networks allowed for fresh fish to be transported to some of Britain’s most heavily populated areas. It could be argued that fish and chips were a key part of Britain’s Industrial Revolution.
The dish became such a cornerstone of the working man and woman’s diet that one shop owner in Bradford was forced to employ a doorman in 1931 to help control the queues. During the Second World War, these queues would often be hours long, as fish and chips were among the few foods to not be rationed. Prime Minister Winston Churchill even referred to the combination of fish and chips as ‘“the good companions”.
In George Orwell’s 1937 novel ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, which documents the author's experience of working-class life in the North of England, he wrote that fish and chips were among the ‘home comforts’ which acted as a panacea to the working class. His words rang true in 1952, when a shop in Guiseley, West Yorkshire, served 10,000 portions of fish in chips in one day, earning them a place in the Guiness Book of Records.
Today, there are an estimated 10,500 fish and chip shops across Britain - around eight for every McDonald’s. It’s no wonder that fish and chips are still considered the nation’s favourite take-away.