Fish and chips: the best in London, including a vegan version, and the dish’s Jewish (and French?) origins
- London owes its traditional fish and chips to Jewish immigrants to the East End, who introduced fried battered fish in the 19th century
- From Whitechapel to Herne Hill to Hackney, we try some of the best chippies in London, both classic and modern
Despite the arrival of Indian and Chinese takeaways, fried chicken shops, and the emergence of London as a bullishly self-confident “foodie” city, the British capital still has plenty of fish and chip shops.
As a lifelong devotee, I’ve decided to go in search of the best – and, in between stodgy, salt and vinegar-laden bites, find out more about its history, ingredients and place in British culture.
First, the history.
Whitechapel, which has been home to successive waves of immigrants over the past few centuries, is now the centre of Britain’s largest Bangladeshi community, but between the mid-19th century and the second world war, this was Jewish London.
That’s why fish and chips emerged here – or at least the fish part, which was bequeathed to Britain by Jewish immigrants. (The origin of chips is more opaque, but France seems most probable.) “Fried fish is indisputably Jewish,” Panikos Panayi, author of “Fish and Chips: A History,” tells me from his office at De Montfort University in Leicester.
“All the evidence points to that. When I was researching the book, I found loads of references to Jewish fish fryers, both men and women.” Until the late 19th century, indeed, the smell of fried fish was a common anti-Semitic trope in Britain.
Walking east along Mile End Road and Whitechapel Road offers plenty of temptation. Whitechapel Market, which runs for perhaps 500 metres between Cambridge Heath Road and Vallance Road, has among its offerings good-value boxes of mangoes, handfuls of coriander and fist-sized lumps of ginger. Then there’s a trio of sweet shops, all in a row, selling vibrantly coloured treats like jalebi (deep-fried batter soaked in syrup), gulab jamun (milk-based dumplings) and ras malai (a rich cheesecake). At Panshi, a Bangladeshi restaurant, samosas are piled enticingly in the window.
This is rich soil. Here, the Salvation Army was founded in 1865; here, the offices of a former brewery, Mann, Crossman and Paulin, sit next to the Blind Beggar pub, where an infamous gangland murder was carried out in 1966 by East End mobster Ronnie Kray. As I walk past, a gaggle of red-blazered schoolkids are making sketches of it.
I turn left into Osborn Street, which leads into Brick Lane. It’s well past time for lunch. On the corner of Hanbury and Commercial streets, I find Poppie’s, one of the city’s newer chippies. I’m intrigued to try it because it’s part of a small chain, which is unusual; most British fish and chip shops are independent.
Inside, Poppie’s is a boisterous mixture of the traditional and harmlessly ersatz. A huge frying range dominates the main room; a shiny, steel staple of fish and chip shops, the range is where the food is cooked and sometimes stored.
I order cod, the classic choice in the south of England. (Northerners prefer haddock; a friend from the north eastern fishing town of Grimsby told me that cod is a “bottom feeder,” which is why they send it elsewhere.) It’s on the small side, but well cooked – crisp, crunchy batter, moist and clearly fresh inside. And although the chips are a little pallid for my taste, a gentle buzz of happiness suggests other diners do not share my reservations.
Fish and chips being what it is, it’s a day before I have sufficient space for any more.
Many of the best chip shops, are based outside the city centre; this is homey food, after all, not haute cuisine. None has a better reputation than Olley’s, which has just been named in the 10-strong national shortlist for the annual National Fish & Chip Awards. It’s in Herne Hill, an increasingly well-to-do south London neighbourhood; I arrive hungry, just after 1pm.
It’s quickly clear that if the interior of Olley’s – with its rustic brick walls and wooden interior windows – is idiosyncratic in the extreme, then the food adheres to the best traditions. Harry Niazi, who opened Olley’s in 1987, is a stickler for quality. The chips are blanched then fried, “which gives a crispy shell on the outside and makes them soft and fluffy on the inside,” he tells me.
The fish is sustainable; it’s all fried in sunflower oil with a touch of rosemary essence, which, Niazi says, ensures that the batter – made simply, with flour and water – isn’t greasy.
Niazi, with his Turkish Cypriot background, is part of a grand tradition. Greek Cypriots are prominent in the trade in the South and Midlands, while Italians have long been associated with the dish in Scotland; Chinese-run shops are common, too. Immigrants not only created fish and chips, but they’ve done much to sustain its popularity, too.
Few people, though, do it as well as Olley’s. The cod is moist and flaky, and the chips are cooked to a crisp, golden turn. Mushy peas – more commonly found on menus in the North and the Midlands – provide a soft, gently flavoursome accompaniment.
Niazi, 55, buzzes around the room. “When a customer comes through that door, I want them to feel relaxed,” he says. “I want to put a smile on their face. Once you relax, it’s like being on holiday.”
And like being on holiday, you end up eating too much. I take a 10-minute train ride into London Victoria Station, aiming to work off my sizeable lunch (there was treacle pudding with custard, too) with a long walk.
I pass a handful of interesting fish and chip shops on the way – the Rock and Sole Plaice (established in 1871) in Covent Garden, for example, or the Fryer’s Delight (1958) in Holborn, whose sparse 1960s interior is a charismatic classic of the genre.
I walk through Clerkenwell, where United Chip opened recently to much fanfare, aiming “to shake up fish and chips.” Alas, it has fallen victim to a complaint as old as the dish itself. In the restaurant’s doorway is a sign announcing that “due to odour complaints from local residents, we have had to close the shop for the remainder of the summer.” It’s now autumn and the restaurant remains closed.
I hurry on, as there’s another new shop that I’m particularly keen to try. Sutton and Sons, a small chain in East London, has just opened the capital’s first vegan-only chip shop in Hackney.
As I approach, two middle-aged women come bowling out of Sutton and Sons, one apologising to the other: “I saw the sign and I thought it would be ordinary fish and chips!”
I’m not put off. The number of customers in this hole-in-the-wall place and, more important, the smell, are encouraging. “Vegan fish” is offered in three forms here. I order battered banana blossom, which has been marinated in seaweed and the marine vegetable, samphire, to take away. It’s a wonderful surprise; gently flavoursome, with a texture not unlike artichoke heart, and very good with a squeeze of lemon. Is it like fish? Not really. But it’s delicious.
By the time I arrive at Hackney Central station to get my train home, it’s all gone. It’s heartening, I suppose, that fish and chips retains enough cultural cachet for a vegan version to be thought desirable, and even better that it’s so good. The next step, I think, is for London to start celebrating this simple native dish.
WHERE TO EAT
65-69 Norwood Rd, Herne Hill, SE24
+44 20 8671 8259
Expect friendly service and sustainably caught fish at this South London staple. Classic puddings (try the treacle pudding, at US$4.95) join a wide selection of fish on the menu; cod and chips costs about US$21.70.
6-8 Hanbury St, Spitalfields E1
+44 20 7247 0892
Situated on the corner of Hanbury Street, close to lively Brick Lane and Spitalfields Market, Poppie’s offers a long menu: a gherkin (or “wally,” about US$1.30) is a tangy accompaniment to regular cod and chips (about US$18.40).
Sutton and S ons
240 Graham Rd, Hackney E8
+44 20 3643 2017
This tiny shop is a bit short on seats, but it’s worth the wait. A sausage-shaped portion of battered banana blossom (about US$7.30) is superb with a squeeze of lemon.