The Great British Institution: Chip Shop Fish & Chips
Updated: Aug 12, 2020
If there's one thing I miss from the UK it's the British Friday night ritual of a chippy tea.
I was fortunate enough to have been born just a few miles from the biggest fish & chip shop in the world. Anyone who knows anything about British Fish & Chips knows the name Harry Ramsden.
In 1928 in Guiseley, Leeds, West Yorkshire, Harry, aged 40, opened a fish & chip shop from a small wooden hut. Just three short years later, such was the demand for Harry's epicurean masterpiece that he opened a 250 seat fish & chip eatery which held the Guinness World Record for the largest Fish & Chip shop in the world serving around 1,000,000 customers a year. 1 million customers, that is a lot of potatoes to peel.
And this was no greasy spoon, the restaurant was adorned with chandeliers, fitted carpets and oak panelled walls. Harry Corbett who later went on to be famous for the Sooty & Sweep UK TV puppet show of the early 1980's was the nephew of Harry Ramsden and even had a job playing the piano at the restaurant which was simply named Harry Ramsden's
A lot has happened since 1928, Harry passed away in 1963 aged 75 and in 1989 the Harry Ramsden brand was floated on the London Stock Exchange and grew into a national chain of restaurants with Harry Ramsden frozen fish and tinned Mushy peas available in supermarkets country wide.
But it was at Harry's original and best restaurant where I tried his fish & chips for the first time. I even once asked to have my birthday party there as a child (which was partially because they had an amusement arcade attached the restaurant and partially because of the food), it really was a night out for a young boy from Leeds aged 9.
Back then Fish & Chips were streets ahead of any other take-away food and it was easily the UK's favourite dish along with the Great British Breakfast & the Traditional Sunday Roast. As people became more health-conscious about fried food, Fish & Chips fell off the top spot and is currently beaten hands down by the new kid on the block; a Ruby Murray (indian Curry) or more specifically the Chicken Tikka Masala Curry which is the UK's national favourite dish.
My absolute favourite out of the chippy was not actually Fish & Chips, I used to order a Chip Butty and a Sausage Butty. The Chip butty is pretty simple, it's a buttered white bread roll filled with hot chips, salt & vinegar and a good dollop of tomato sauce (Ketchup), Brilliant. The Sausage Butty is slightly more complex (but not much) it involves taking an oversized pork banger (perhaps 20cm / 8 inches long) that then gets battered with the same batter as the fish and deep fried so it's crispy on the outside and soft and juicy on the inside. It is then served in a white buttered torpedo roll (think oversized hotdog bun) with the obligatory salt & vinegar and either tomato sauce or brown sauce depending on your preference and mood. That was a meal of champions.
Other notable delights from any local Fish & Chip shop in the north of England would include:
Mushy Peas - Surprisingly, not readily available outside the UK I discovered on my travels. Traditionally, these are peas soaked with a little bicarbonate of soda to break them down so that when they're cooked they break down into almost a pea puree (less refined) and can be had plain or with some mint sauce mixed through to give a sweet and sour flavour. i was never a great fan as a child (green food signalled danger) so preferred to opt for baked beans if they were available (only some chip shops had baked beans).
Curry Sauce - Having now eaten my share of curry, I now know that Fish & Chip shop curry sauce was stretching the boundaries calling itself curry and in actual fact I'm not actually sure what it was but it tasted good. It was essentially a kind of gelatinous gravy, similar to chicken gravy with a good spoonful of curry powder added and some finely chopped onion. It ranged from mustard yellow (probably due to the use of Tumeric) to a browny-green sludge (due to the lack of Turmeric!) and sat in a bain marie bubbling away all day. Sounds disgusting but it was good with chips and I've never successfully replicated the flavour.
Scraps - These are sometimes called bits from people outside Yorkshire, but they're wrong, its scraps. Scraps are the bits of batter that fell off the fish as it went into the hot oil. Like little nuggets of crispy fried goodness, some genius decided that rather than throw them away, they'd keep them in the warmer and if you asked for them, they were a free add-on to your chips, which was great if you couldn't afford the Fish. It is officially against the law in Yorkshire (probably) to charge for scraps.
Specials - Specials had to be ordered when you first went into the chippy and joined the queue (there was always a queue) as they were prepared and cooked to order. You were making two statements when you ordered a special. The first was you had money, the Special was the most expensive thing on the menu. The second was that you were hungry. The special was basically a giant fish almost twice the size of a normal fish and as it was cooked to order so benefitted from nice crispy batter, guaranteed to be in tip top condition by the time you got home. Anyone ordering a special would shout the order to the chippy owner (who generally was also the fry master responsible for cooking the fish), making sure that everyone in the queue heard in a kind of "I'm doing better than you" tone. They always got a warmer reception by the lady who served and wrapped your order. It was always a lady and often the wife of the owner or if he was lucky a pretty young female apprentice to take the boredom out of staring at fish and potatoes all day.
Cake - In Yorkshire, or maybe just even Leeds, a Fish & Chip shop cake wasn't a dessert, it was a poor man's substitute for fish. If you couldn't afford Fish & Chips, you ordered Cake & Chips to make up a lower cost meal. A cake was essentially a large disk of potato and a disc of the same size of fish (probably the broken bits or trimmings) sandwiched together and then battered and deep fried. They were good, especially in a bread roll as a butty. I never could figure out how the 2 discs held together whilst it fried, I guess it was probably frozen when it went in the fryer.
Pickled onions / eggs - Every chip shop had the same thing on the counter a bottle of Tomato Sauce, a big salt shaker and a giant sprinkler bottle of malt vinegar. They were free and you could have as much as you want as long as you didn't appear to be taking advantage of the generosity of the shop owner who would be watching from behind the fryer at everything going on. The only other things visible in the shop was a double boiler that housed the bubbling curry sauce and mushy peas and then there would be two giant 5 litre glass jars usually on a shelf or on the counter. One had pickled eggs and the other had giant pickled onions. The former in a jar full of white vinegar and the latter in brown malt vinegar. You could add one of these delicacies to your order for just few pence, nobody ever seemed to though, those eggs and onions could have been years old, preserved like old lab experiments. Whilst I love pickled onions, to this day I have never and probably will never try a pickled egg, I just don't get it.
Pies - But what if you don't like fish? Well firstly your weird but thats why the battered sausage existed, not everyone liked fish and so as not to alienate a customer, the fryers came up with the battered sausage. The only other real alternative was a pie, usually cooked to order and generally done in a microwave which made them soggy but actually in a good way. Minced beef and onion was my favourite but given the only other flavour was chicken and mushroom, you had a 50/50 chance it was going to be your favourite! You could tell which was which by the foil tray they were served in, red was Minced Beef and gold was Chicken. Interestingly that is also how you identify the difference between gravy and stick flavours, red for beef, gold for chicken, green for vegetable and purple for lamb. There is your useless fact for the week.
Whilst the lady that did the serving was always nice and helpful, you needed to show her some respect, remember your P's & Q's (please and thank you) and you better have remembered your order and be able to relay it to her concisely and precisely in the right jargon. You see Fish & Chip shops were a bit like casinos, once you've placed your bet, you can't change your mind, if you'd made a mistake it was easier to live with it than face the disapproving stare from the owner who now had fried a fish too many or had to start a special when you were at the front of the queue.
In Yorkshire, the selection of fish was pretty simple, haddock, haddock or haddock. I've visited other parts of the country where they have a choice of fish like cod, rock or plaice as well as haddock. You can even get one of my absolute favourite Scampi. I'm not entirely sure what scampi is but I think it's a kind of baby lobster tail. It is pretty spectacular so if you've never had it, give it a try if the opportunity presents itself. Where I'm from, fish is a generic term for haddock, canned pilchards or canned tuna, so Fish & Chips was always haddock.
I can remember our Friday night order to this day and it's now 35 years ago:
Dad - Fish & chips and a cake and a buttered Tea Cake (bread roll)
Mum - Just a fish, she'd break the batter off and give it to my dad if she was slimming.
Sister - Fish & Chips, can of coke
Me - Chip Butty & Sausage Butty OR Cake Butty And Chip Butty
Sides - Large Mushy peas and a curry sauce which would get shared out
This had to be ordered verbatim in the following speech:
"Fish & chips twice, 1 fish, 1 cake, 1 chip butty, 1 cake butty, 1 tea cake, 1 large peas, 1 ordinary curry sauce and a can of coke please."
All done in one breath like a corporal reporting for duty.
The orders were then wrapped up individually, piled onto wax paper then wrapped up in a sheet of yesterday's newspaper. All piled into a plastic carrier bag and you were on your way home. If they were hot enough and greasy enough, by the time you got home you would have the news print on your dinner. I remember that fondly although I'm not sure what affect dirty newspaper ink had on the Great British public. You would eat it on your lap out of the paper to save washing up, that's why it was so popular on Friday night, it was super convenient and no washing up was required so the whole family could have a night in front of the TV together watching the classics of Coronation Street and Emmerdale Farm for the soaps, followed by a couple of game shows including Bruce Forsyth's Play Your Cards Right and Family Fortunes, then topped off with some family USA action from The A-Team or Colt Seavers in the Fall Guy.
Then it was off to bed with a full stomach and square eyes.
Fish & chips was truly a value for money meal in those days too. I can remember being around 8 years old and A portion of chips was 22 pence, a cake was 25 pence and a battered sausage was 25 pence. Peas or curry sauce were 15 pence, a tea Cake was 10p and a fish was 63p a can of pop (soda) was 15p. That was in 1985.
So Fish & Chips with mushy peas, a bread roll and a drink in 1985 was £1.25
Just for fun I went and checked inflation and the UK inflation from 1985 to today was 263% so that same £1.25 meal should now cost £3.29. I then went and checked out the original Harry Ramsden's (now called the Wetherby Whaler) to see if the Great British Takeaway was still an affordable treat for a working class family in the north of England:
Mushy Peas: £1.05
Bread Roll: £0.92
Can of Coke: £1.10
Tomato Sauce Serving: £0.32
Grand Total: £9.84
Well, I expected it to be a bit more expensive and we are talking about what once was the biggest Fish & Chip Shop in the world (but it isn't and it's not carrying the Harry Ramsden's name anymore) but that surprises me a lot.
A bread roll, now costs more than Fish & chips did 35 years ago!
I even had to include the cost of a sachet of tomato sauce because it used to be free. It's not difficult to see why Fish & Chips has fallen out of favour in the UK, what once was a thrifty weekly treat has now come in close to a wallet busting £50 for the same order I used to get for our family for less than £5. inflation has gone up less than 3 times but Fish & Chips has gone up nearly 10 times. Harry Ramsden must be spinning in his grave (that's a very yorkshire saying).
I can accept that overfishing may have caused the cost of fish to rise exponentially but I know the cost of a bread roll and a can of coke have definitely not increased in production costs over the last 35 years so I can only assume that the UK just got more expensive. Just to complete my analysis I went and looked at alternatives and looked up a few popular takeaway dishes to compare from other restaurants where I used to live:
12 inch Hawaiian Pizza and a drink: £6.80
Chicken Tikka Masala, Garlic Naan and a drink £7.80
Sweet & Sour Chicken, Fried Rice & a drink £7.00
So it looks like Britain got more expensive over the years but British Fish & Chips got more expensive than it's Italian, Indian and Chinese counterparts. What a shame.
But you can't stop progress.
This was originally going to be a recipe but it seems I took a trip down memory lane instead. To be honest, there's not much to cooking fish and chips but if you came here for a recipe and still read this fair, let me not disappoint you. For the chips, look no further than our Triple Cooked Chips recipe or for a slightly healthier alternative our Air Fryer Triple Cooked Chips recipe.For the fish, it's all in the batter and it has to be made with beer (although if you're not allowed alcohol for medical or religious reasons, I will allow soda water). I usually use a bottle of lager, Heineken ( I am in no way sponsored or incentivised to promote Heineken, but if they're reading, I would very much like to be) is a good choice. Then it's just flour, baking powder, salt and optionally, vinegar.
My Beer Battered Fish Recipe
1 large skinless fillet of white fish (haddock, cod, hake etc.)
1 Bottle of lager (275ml-330ml)
1 small bag of plain flour (500g)
1 teaspoon of Baking powder
Malt Vinegar (or any vinegar will do other than balsamic)
1 Wedge of Lemon - Optional
1 litre of frying oil (sunflower or vegetable or fine) or beef dripping
Place half the flour in a large mixing bowl
Add the baking powder
Whilst slowly whisking, pour in the beer whisking until you have a consistency similar to double cream ( or like thin custard if you don't know what double cream thickness is like)
If you go too thin, add a tablespoon of flour, if you go too thick, add more beer.
Once you have the right consistency add 2 teaspoons of vinegar and a 2 teaspoons of salt
Whisk a little more to combine, don't over work it, a couple of lumps is fine.
Leave to rest at least 1 hour
Heat the oil or dripping to 190C / 375f
Take your fish by the tail and submerge it in the batter
Hang over the bowl for a couple of seconds to allow excess batter to drip off
Carefully lower the fish into the oil laying it away from you to prevent any hot oil splashes
Hold the tail just above the oil to allow the batter to seal before releasing into the oil (be careful not to burn yourself)
leave the fish alone cooking for 3-4 minutes without touching it, then flip it over to ensure even cooking
As soon as both sides of the batter is golden brown, remove from the oil and rest on a paper towel / kitchen roll sheet to remove excess oil for a minute
Serve immediately with salt and vinegar and an optional lemon wedge