Sitting in my flat, the cabin fever is starting to creep up on me. I’ve been staring at this computer screen for far too long and a dull ache is forming between my eyes. Oh the pains of finals week. And now, during the looming winter, the city becomes immersed in cold and darkness as early as 5:00 and during this abnormally cold week in London, I find myself clinging the radiator for dear life. I think of the contents of my refrigerator and cringe at the thought of mere yoghurt and some wilting salad leaves for dinner. Something’s got to be better than that, something hot, filling, and maybe a little too indulgent. Now that would be perfect...if only it could just appear in front of me. So trying to ignore the sounds of wind shaking the windows, I tighten my scarf, button up my coat, and prepare myself for the frigid walk that, although painful, will be completely worth it in the end.
My nose catches wind of a distinct smell that even the healthiest of people can’t resist, signifying the closeness of my destination long before its visible. What can truly be more enticing than the strangely warming scent of hot oil and fish on a bleak, gloomy night? That’s right, I’m heading to the “chippy” for one of England’s most famous dishes, fish and chips. As guilt inducing as the fried-fest may be, it, every once in a while is exactly what the overworked and exhausted Londoner needs. I wait in the queue, shivering under my multiple layers, and, after ordering, happily accept the warm package in my icy hands. Steam rises up from the beautiful golden slab of fish nestled among the chips. They rustle slightly in crispiness as I cup the parcel. I add a generous shaking of malt vinegar, giving the steam a sharp, sinus clearing quality and I head out, no longer affected by the cold but with only the thoughts of this so simple yet pleasing meal. Every bite is indulgent as the grease exudes from the pores of the crispy bits, coating my mouth with sinful flavor. And, although my stomach protests, the chips somehow find their way into my mouth until all that's left is a grease sodden piece of parchment.
My favorite local fish and chips shop
Fish and chips have actually been around London for about 150 years. Many think that the Jewish immigrant Joseph Malin opened the first chippy in the east end around 1860. The fare was popular among the working class because it added variety to their bland diets. It’s a little unclear exactly how the meal’s two components of fish and chips became one, but no matter the history, there couldn’t be a better match. But although the dynamic duo is always together, the condiments vary widely. Some like simple salt and vinegar, others, like John Lennon, prefer ketchup, and some find solace in tartar sauce, pickled onions, gherkins, or mushy peas.
The types of fish can very too. The most popular are cod and haddock but other options include sole, skate, plaice, and rock. Originally, they came tucked away inside a folded piece of newspaper, but due to hygienic concerns, they now come in parchment or wax paper, sometimes with a newspaper print or placed inside an outer layer of newspaper. This fabulous fried treat my be losing some popularity due to is rather unhealthy nature but, no matter what, it will always be a staple in the British food culture. Just, if in London, don’t do what the Californians sitting next to did one time and order fried fish but only eat the fish innards, leaving the fried batter carcass. I mean, if your going to order fish and chips in London, the least you can do is enjoy it.
But before the delicacy of fish and chips came about, the poor people of London had to resort to other means of protein sources from the water. And in the 1700s, this meant eels. They were in such overabundance in the Thames that their consumption was widespread and very cheap for the working classes. The eels were prepared in quite an interesting way, however, and took a jellied form. Eels naturally have gelatinous meat so, when cooked in a combination of water, vinegar, and citrus, it gives off proteins. Once cooled, the water and eel mixture turned into jelly. It was served at street stalls, or along with pie and mash. In fact, by the early 1900s, over one-hundred Eel Mash and Pie Houses existed in London. Jellied eels are not anywhere near as popular as they were before, but it is still common to find eel, prepared in other ways, in many of London’s higher quality pubs and restaurants. So how could I resist a taste of this dish?
I found them at the restaurant Wild Honey though I felt a little ridiculous ordering eel, as if the waiter could sense my uncertainly. It was prepared as a smoked fillet, served alongside crispy pieces of chicken, roasted turnips, creamed corn, and sea purslane (a salty water plant). The sliver of eel arrived on my plate, looking ordinary enough so, after a few deep breaths, I braved a taste and I actually quite liked it. Because it was smoked, it had a slight bacony flavor, without masking the salty sea flavor too much. The flavor reminded me somewhat of salmon but the texture was different. As expected, it wasn’t quite as tender and flaky as most fish but instead had a slight tough chew, somewhere between the texture of scallops and clams. It’s hard to explain, yet still really enjoyed it. I’m sure that prepared this way its flavor takes precedence of jellied eels by a mile but, it was still exhilarating to try this British dish, now almost delicacy, that many in America wouldn’t even consider as edible.
Although these are only a few examples, they are not the only important fish types in England. As England, of course, is an island, seafood is actually very prevalent in London, or at least used to be until many gained endangered status. So now, since restaurants try to use ethically sourced seafood, it is much more expensive. But still, some other popular dishes include Scottish oysters and scallops (pictured), smoked salmon, monkfish, dory, and many more.
If given the option between sea or mammal meat, I generally pick that from my furry friends but, experiencing the London seafood scene has been a joy. And now, after having fish and chips from the place where it all started, I doubt if I’ll be able to have it in America again without making comparisons. So if you ever find yourself in lovely London Town, head over to Rock and Sole Plaice for a chippy experience to remember.