Winston Churchill called them ‘The good companions’. John Lennon smothered his in ketchup. Michael Jackson liked them with mushy peas. I like them with crunchy onion rings and a fresh squeeze of lemon.
I’m talking about the humble fish and chip. The origins are inconclusive, but it has been suggested that it was served to market traders in London’s East End as early as 1860. It was traditionally served with mushy peas, salt and vinegar.
I don’t remember exactly the first time I tried the combo, but I have childhood memories of sitting in a pushchair happily tucking into vinegary chips served in an old newspaper.
In my teens, on weeknights we hung out by the riverside on our BMXs after a pit-stop at the chippie. Huddled in a circle we would unwrap our newsprint packages. As soon as the steam hit your face you were immediately overcome with the smell of malt vinegar.
A chip fork made from a flat piece of wood with two prongs was all the cutlery you’d need. The best part was ‘scraps’ (the small pieces of batter removed from the oil in the fish fryer); not only were they crispy and coated in salt, they were also free!
If your pocket money hadn’t stretched to the end of the week, you could ask the ‘chippie’ owner for scraps. Servings in old newspaper cones were common practice until the 1980s when it was ruled unsafe because of the inks, so the scraps were then placed in paper-lined cones.
It’s a food I took for granted growing up; there were chip shops everywhere. Friday night was the busiest. Considered a treat, I would often scoot out on two wheels to the local chippie with a list of who wants what. The chippie’s name would always cause a giggle, I used to go to ‘Frank’s Plaice’, there was a ‘Fishcotheque’ and of course ’The Codfather’.
Laden with the family’s cod and haddock combos, I would cycle home. I could feel the heat from the vinegary bundles dangling from my handlebars. Unwrapping was a military operation, figuring who ordered what — no need for plates for this family meal.
Across the UAE I have found the duo pretty much on every menu, always billed as ‘traditional’. Like many menu staples, the presentation has moved on from inky newspaper to slate boards, chips in mini buckets, smudges of mushy peas and lemons wrapped in muslin. I’ve seen greaseproof paper with vintage newspaper stories printed on and recycled printed cones. But whichever way it’s served, the recipe has remained much the same — though carbonated water has replaced bicarbonate of soda, and it’s now pea puree not mushy peas. It’s still such a treat, though I’ve ditched the BMX, and I’m not sure if Frank still has his ‘Plaice’, but this still remains my ultimate in comfort food. This recipe is easy to follow, you can use premade tartare, switch the peas for coleslaw… whatever the combo, enjoy!
Battered cod, chips, mushy peas & onion rings
Serves 2, prep time 10 minutes, cooking time 20-25 minutes
For the batter
■ 200g of plain flour
■ 250ml of sparkling water
For the fish
■ 2 medium cod fillet
■ 4 tbsp of plain flour
For the chips
■ 2 large russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2cm strips
■ 1 tbsp of white wine vinegar
■ 1 litre of vegetable oil for deep frying
For the onion rings
■ 1 large white onion cut into thick slices and separated
■ Rock salt to serve
For the tartar sauce
■ 4 tbsp of mayonnaise
■ 1 egg yolk
■ 1 chopped fresh parsley
■ 15 mini gherkins chopped
■ 15 caper berries chopped
■ Juice of lemon
For the mushy peas
■ 1 cup of edamame beans
■ 2 tsp of butter
■ A little water
■ Salt & pepper
In a mixing bowl combine the sparkling water and flour a little at a time. Keep mixing the batter until it’s smooth in texture; it should be the consistency of pancake batter. Cover the bowl and chill in the fridge.
Boil some water in a deep pan with vinegar. Peel and cut the potatoes into 2cm strips and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat, drain, return to the pan then cover with cold water. Once cooled, place on a towel to soak up the excess water.
Next, prepare the tartare sauce — combine the mayonnaise and egg yolk. Add the chopped ingredients and season to taste, cover and chill in the fridge.
Now, heat some salted water in a pan and cook the peas until soft. Place the peas and a little water and in a food processor blitz into a puree, then set to one side.
In a wok heat the oil over high heat. When the oil starts to smoke gently lower a handful potatoes into the oil. Using a mesh spoon keep the potato moving, so the chips don’t stick. When golden in colour remove from the oil, place on some kitchen towel to drain off the excess fat.
Next, coat each cod fillets with flour, then dip into the batter. Let the excess batter drain off and lower into the oil. Cook the fish for 4-5 minutes on each side. Then use the remainder of the batter coat on the onion rings, drop them one by one into the batter for around a minute on each side. Repeat the process until all the rings are cooked. Place on some kitchen towel to drain the excess oil and sprinkle with rock salt. Next, return the chips to the oil and cook for one minute, drain off the excess oil. Reheat the mushy peas and serve the fish and chips with the onion rings, tartare sauce and lemon wedges.
— Recipes, food styling and photography by Mark Setchfield, follow him on Instagram @gasmarksix.