London: Fish & Chips Beckon
Dah-ling," my chichi London friend kept saying to me. "Why bother with fish and chips?So déclassé. As Britain’s national dish, why not choose...curry?" My response: Bring on the batter!
Trapped in a crisp golden casing that shatters at the touch of the incisors, giving way to moist milky-white haddock or cod, correctly battered fried fish is among the most addictive things on this planet. On the side: those slightly limp chips (fries to you) that come alive with a squirt of malt vinegar. A pickled gherkin (a wally in the chippy vernacular) and peas (mushy, please) complete the picture. Introduced to Britain, it’s thought, by Murano Jews, deep-fried battered fish took off as fast food in the mid 1800’s. The original side was a hunk of bread, later replaced by a baked potato, a gift from the Irish. Soon, chips (a Belgian invention) entered the picture and Britain never looked back. Winston Churchill dubbed fish and chips "the good companions." By the onset of World War II, the staple was so essential to British life that chippy carts fed starving evacuees during the Blitz. Today, according to the National Federation of Fish Fryers, Britons consume over 300 million fish-and-chip meals per year. Take that, tikka masala.
On the issue of cooking style, Britain stands as a country divided, with frying in beef drippings favored by the North. Beef drippings are what makes fish and potatoes so special at London’s Northern-minded Fryer’s Delight, a weathered chippy in Holborn, giving the batter its deep, well-rounded flavor and bringing out the natural sweetness in the moist, thickly cut taters. With its Formica-forever décor and a cult following among cabbies and Japanese hipsters, Fryer’s Delight is a touch grim—but good grim, a reminder that the chip shop is a child of the industrial age, intended to offer cheap nourishment to workers at factories and cotton mills.
Thanks to flowerpots hung above wooden tables outside, my next stop, Rock & Sole Plaice, wasn’t grim in the least—one reason why snobs often dismiss London’s oldest chip shop (it’s been here under various names since 1871) as a bastion for wimps. Wimps would be pleased with the sign proclaiming that the frying here is done in clean-tasting peanut oil. And they would adore the sweet, delicate lemon sole, in puffy ale-colored batter, with a lively, resilient crunch that remains even after the fish has cooled down. A first-hand degustation of the other fish on offer revealed why Northerners are probably right in insisting that haddock is for heroes and cod is for zeroes (never mind that cod is a best-seller throughout most of the country). And while the chips were ghastly, a piercingly sweet-sour gherkin made up some of the lost ground.
"A true chippy should be a dive with a line out the door that leaves your hair smelling of grease," Charles Campion, the cheap-eats guru at the Evening Standard, pronounced to me over the phone. Then he sent me on my way to the Golden Hind, tucked away on a Marylebone side street. Though not quite the working-class dump I expected, this 1914 institution has virtues aplenty. Gorgeous Art-Deco Bakelite frying equipment is still proudly in use; glowing-fresh fish arrives daily from Grimsby, on the western coast; and Maris Pepper potatoes are twice-fried and yield resolutely unsoggy and habit-forming chips. The key to perfection here is the proportion of batter to fish, explained Anthone Christou, the Cypriot owner—adding that overpuffed batter is a cheap ploy used by unscrupulous chippys to make servings look larger (now you know). Discreet, with a soft springy crunch, his batter concealed a nugget of haddock so fine it would do any Gordon Ramsay establishment proud. No, I didn’t wake up the next day with the lingering scent of fried grease in my hair. But that doesn’t make me love the Golden Hind any less.