Fish and chips, widely known as a typically British meal has a somewhat surprising history that includes that its origins are most definitely non-British. They can be traced overseas and one, importantly, to the south of Spain.
What? Not British? I can almost hear the howls of outrage coming from the ‘sceptered isle’1. But it is true, over the years the British have proved they have a knack of adapting ideas and products from elsewhere and that version becoming ‘British’.
There is no doubt, though, that fried fish originally arrived from Spain. It was taken to England by Jewish refugees
The story of the humble chip goes back to the 17th Century to either Belgium or France, depending who you believe. Now for the benefit of this blog’s American readers, let me make it plain that a British chip, as sold with fish, is not an American chip; Brits know those as crisps. Nor are they French fries exactly, British chips are more like a much slimmer version of American steak chips.
What’s more, I do not intend to discuss how the best chips should be cooked as individual tastes vary considerably. Even Lisa and I have different views on the subject!
However, talking of origins, it may seem strange but chips seem to have been invented in Belgium as a substitute for fish. When the rivers froze over and fish could not be caught, they began to cut potatoes into fishy shapes and frying them instead.
Around the same time, fried fish was introduced into Britain by Jewish refugees from Spain. Even today, Andalucia is famous for its fried fish shops, locally called freidurias.
Back in 19th century London, as a result of the Jewish refugees, the fried fish was usually sold by street sellers from large trays hung around their necks. The famous author Charles Dickens referred to an early fish shop or ‘fried fish warehouse’ in his well-known novel Oliver Twist, which was first published in 1839, where the fish generally came with bread or baked potatoes.
And this was well before the competing claims made on behalf of London’s Joseph Malin, himself a Jewish immigrant, and John Lees, of Mossley a part of today’s Manchester, to have opened the first fish and chip shops in the early 1860s.
So, like other things that are supposedly ‘British’, fried fish and chips appear to have come from Spain and Belgium respectively. They may have been ‘married’ in England but neither can claim to have originated there.
* What else is traditionally British but isn’t really? Well, the game of polo came from India, tea bags were invented in the USA, pubs were introduced by the Romans and England’s patron saint of dragon-slaying fame was not English at all. He was born in an area that is in modern-day Turkey.
1 ‘Sceptered isle’, from William Shakespeare’s King Richard II, Act 2, scene 1.