In London, eat your way through the history – and future – of fish-and-chips

FRANK Dobson Square is no place to linger, even on a warm October day. This brick-paved chunk of East London has seen better days, not least because its centrepiece, Dobson’s 1951 sculpture ‘Woman With Fish’, was vandalised beyond repair and removed in 2002. Those sitting on the benches around the square – who number three, including me, this Thursday morning – have only its former home, a forlorn metal plinth, to look at now.

I haven’t come to see the sculpture, though, or its plinth. I’m searching for something else, something that records this locale’s unique place in British history. This is where the world’s first fish-and-chip shop, Malin’s, was founded in the early 1860s; before the square arrived in 1963, this was the north end of Cleveland Way, and Malin’s opened at No 78.

There are rival claimants, of course, but this appears the most likely origin of Britain’s iconic dish. “I can’t find any alternative, really,” Panikos Panayi, author of Fish and Chips: A History, tells me from his office at De Montfort University in Leicester. “In one sense I can’t see any reason to disbelieve it; on the other hand, fish and chips shops don’t really take off until the beginning of the 20th century. I couldn’t find many fish and chip shops that existed between Malin’s and then.”

In the absence of certainty, I’m happy to accept the Malin’s claim. Frank Dobson Square does not, though, offer much encouragement. A group of skittish pigeons, a mini-supermarket, a digital billboard congratulating racing driver Lewis Hamilton on his latest triumph; it has all of these. Anything about fish and chips? Nope.

Elsewhere in the city, things are different. 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 chippys. As a lifelong devotee, I’ve decided to go in search of the best – and, in between stodgy, salt-and-vinegar-laden bites, I’ll find out more about its history, ingredients and unique place in British culture.

First, history. Frank Dobson Square is a few minutes’ walk from the heart of London’s most fascinating neighbourhood, Whitechapel, which has been home to successive waves of immigrants over the past few centuries. It’s now the centre of Britain’s largest Bangladeshi community but between the mid-19th century and World War II, this was Jewish London, a shtetl called Whitechapel.

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,” Panayi says. “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.

Malin’s may be long gone, but there’s still good food in Whitechapel. Walking east from Cleveland Way 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-size 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 establishment, Mann, Crossman and Paulin, sit next to the Blind Beggar establishment, 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.

Religion, like food, is a constant. Outside Whitechapel Station, which is being redeveloped for the arrival of the new Elizabeth underground line, a preacher styling himself as the “Open Air Mission” is questioning passers-by.

The Fryer’s Delight, a fish-and-chip restaurant in London’s Holborn neighbourhood
Poppie’s, a restaurant in Spitalfields, London
The exterior of The Ten Bells
A plate of cod and chips, plus side portions of mushy peas and tartar sauce, at Olley’s, a fish-and-chips restaurant in Herne Hill, South London
Sutton and Sons, a vegan fish-and-chip restaurant in Hackney, offers ‘vegan fish’ in three forms
The offices of the defunct Mann, Crossman and Paulin in Whitechapel in London’s East End

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 chippys. 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. It’s common to see a tantalising array of already cooked items, such as fish and battered sausages, sitting in a glass compartment at eye-level.

On the walls are pictures of the old East End, caricatures of famous personalities (including, naturally, Churchill), old advertisements, regimental badges, newspaper front pages and a thin strip running around the room containing translations of cockney rhyming slang. It’s deeply unreliable, however.

I order cod, the classic choice in the South of England. (Northerners prefer haddock; a friend from the northern 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. That’s appropriate, since Friday is the day to eat fish and chips. At my sons’ primary school, for example, it’s always served for Friday lunch, while my local chippy, Brockley’s Rock, is bursting at the seams by 5pm with customers waiting for their weekly treat.

Many of the best chip shops, like Brockley’s Rock, are based outside of 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 and 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 – 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 sizable 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 in Covent Garden, for example, or the Fryer’s Delight in Holborn, whose sparse 1960s interior is a charismatic classic of the genre. Plenty of establishments serve the dish, too, although that’s a modern thing.

I walk through Clerkenwell, where United Chip opened to much fanfare earlier this year, 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 fall 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.

Hackney is, like many East London neighbourhoods, caught between a working-class tradition and the rapid onset of gentrification.

It’s a place where you’ll find real estate agents offering two-bedroom flats for the equivalent of a million dollars cheek-by-jowl with workmen in the cafes. Vegan fish and chips, I guess, fits somewhere in between the two, but not everyone is convinced.

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 – and I know exactly where to start. There’s an empty plinth in Frank Dobson Square that could do with a nice new statue. – Text & Photos by The Washington Post