It’s time to rock a few commonly-held pre-conceptions about the British, just to separate the myth from reality. Barely anyone wears a bowler hat, for example. Some of us have lovely teeth, and we’re a nation peopled as strongly with uncynical, unsneery, unsarcastic and sincere folks as any other.
But if I can make one sweeping generalization which is broadly true, we do love our fish & chips. Even though, when fish shops first opened in the Victorian era, they often had to be sited down the stinky end of town, near the tannery, as the smell of frying was said to be hazardous to public health.
Of course, being a fiercely territorial island, there are regional variations to what is effectively our national dish, and everyone thinks they know best. My grandparents are from the north east coast of England, a place called Grimsby, which is a major fishing port, bringing in catches from the North Sea. And they used to run a fish and chip shop there, taking the fish straight from the docks and serving it to the families of the fishermen who’d brought it in. You could order all sorts of different fish – plaice or cod or battered cod roe or rock salmon – but the fish in fish and chips was always haddock.
Meanwhile, in the south and west, where the catch comes from the Atlantic, it’s always cod.
Then there are the serving variations. To prepare fish and chips you batter the fish and deep-fry it, alongside deep fried chipped potatoes (you know we call fries “chips,” right?). But in the north of England there’s also batter bits, which are the fragments of fish batter which fell off in the fryer. You can ask to have those scattered across your meal like crunchy croutons in a salad.
To counter the crunch, you’ll need mushy peas. These are just marrowfat peas cooked with a little bicarb to make them turn into a mush. Some British people will tell you they don’t like mushy peas, but don’t let this put you off trying for yourself, as they are wrong.
If the peas don’t win you round and you still feel the need for a little liquid, you could try adding gravy (that’s British meat-flavored brown gravy, not the stuff Southerners dip biscuits in), or even curry sauce. These are all acceptable variations, more common in some areas than others. And you can even forgo the fish altogether, and choose a long battered sausage, or a saveloy (a kind of superwiener), or a fishcake.
For some reason, even this isn’t enough for some hardy souls, and so every fish and chip shop also stocks a few jars of dill pickles (which we call gherkins) and pickled eggs. I have no idea why pickled eggs are such a hit, they’re not available on restaurant menus and often hard to find in the supermarkets, but fish and chip shops ALWAYS have them.
Once you’ve made your choices (and for first-timers, haddock is definitely the place to start), you’ll be asked if you want salt and vinegar. Say yes. It’s worth it.