A brief history of Fish’n’Chips

To celebrate National Fish & chip day on June 4, here’s a short history of how the dish came to be.

Eaten on seaside holidays or as a pay-day treat, a late-night supper or hangover food after a big night out, fish’n’ chips have fed generations of British people. 

They’re origins, however, might hail from Belgium or France, where the humble chip first made an appearance back in the 17th century. Oddly enough, the spuds were first used as a substitute for fish, rather than an accompaniment. After particularly harsh winters had left the populations of those countries without fish to eat, in fact, resourceful housewives began cutting the potatoes into fish shapes, and frying them as an alternative.  

Meanwhile, in Britain, Jewish refugees from Portugal and Spain began introducing fried fish to the locals, selling it on the streets from large trays hung round their necks. 

Eventually, someone, somewhere in England had the brilliant idea to marry the two -- though who this culinary genius was, or whether he lived up north or down south we’ll never know for sure, despite raging debates that still continue today. 

Some credit a northern entrepreneur called John Lees who, as early as 1863, was selling fish and chips out of a wooden hut at Mossley market in industrial Lancashire.

Others claim a Jewish immigrant, Joseph Malin, was the first to set up a fish 'n' chip shop in East London around 1860.

Regardless of the ‘inventor,’ the dish became a hit. The bright combo offered a tasty diversion from the bleak, monotonous diet of the working class, and fish 'n' chip shops soon sprung up across the country and beyond, in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. In 1910 there were more than 25,000 fish and chip shops across the UK. By the 1930s, they had increased to over 35,000.

To keep prices low, 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.

Fish’n’chips played a big part in boosting morale during World World I and II (Winston Churchill called them "the good companions"), to the point that the dish was one of the few that were never rationed.

In the decades that followed, the irresistible combination of a thick hunk of battered cod resting atop a mound of steaming hot chips kept being a favourite of older and younger generations alike, becoming synonymous with quintessential British comfort food. Today, there are still some 10,500 "chippies" in the country, serving 360 million meals of fish and chips every year -- the equivalent of six servings of fish and chips for every British man, woman and child.

To eat fish’n’chips isn’t just a pleasure, it is to engage with a national treasure.

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