As you probably know, there are two types of fried fish in this country. There is the fried fish you buy from the chippy, coated in batter, deep fried and served with chips, a sprinkling of salt and soused with malt vinegar. Then there is our fried fish, coated in egg and matzah meal, pan fried and served cold with a nice bit of chreyn.
But they are, in essence, one and the same dish. In fact, British cod and chips would not exist without the Jews. It is well documented that the British culture of sticking things in batter and deep frying them originated with Portuguese marranos who arrived in London via Holland from the 16th century onwards. They brought with them their fried fish or pescado frito, which was adopted by Ashkenazi immigrants in the 19th century and eventually teamed up with chips to produce the great British takeaway.
However, until the middle of the 19th century, fried fish was still considered an exotic and rare dish by the English. Alexis Soyer, a celebrated chef at the Reform Club, wrote in his 1859 book Soyer’s Shilling Cookery for the People: “There is another excellent way of frying fish which is constantly in use by the children of Israel, and I cannot recommend it too highly.”
The recipe he cited involved mixing flour with water to create a batter, dipping a piece of halibut into it and deep frying in lard or dripping, although Soyer pointed out that “the Jews use oil”. He added that there was an alternative method, which was to coat the fish in egg then flour (presumably, Jews would have used matzah meal) before frying. The dish was, he wrote, excellent cold “and can be eaten with oil, vinegar and cucumbers in summer time and is exceedingly cooling”.
Soyer was not the only person to sing the praises of Jewish fried fish. United States President Thomas Jefferson was complimentary about fried fish “cooked in the Jewish fashion”, which he ate while in London towards the end of the 18th century. And, 100 years later, Jewish writer Israel Zangwill was also extolling its virtues. In Children of the Ghetto, he wrote: “Fried fish, and such fried fish! With the audacity of true culinary genius, Jewish fried fish is always served cold. The skin is a beautiful brown, the substance firm and succulent.”
In 1860, Joseph Malin, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, began to purvey this treat, along with new fangled fried potatoes, from his premises in Bow, in the East End. And so was born the archetypal “British” dish.
It was at this point that Jewish and British fried fish began to diverge. Most non-Jews will never have eaten their fried fish cold, and until recently the idea of hot fried fish would have been anathema to Jews (I remember my East End grandmother practically gasping with surprise when served hot fried fish for the first time aged 85).
Fried fish was originally a Shabbat dish which could conveniently be cooked on Thursday night or Friday morning, and eaten cold by Sephardi Jews on Friday nights or Saturdays — this is still the tradition in my, now predominantly, Ashkenazi family.
Of course, in some form or other, it has now spread throughout the world. Japanese tempura — fish, seafood or vegetables flash fried in a light batter — was introduced by Portuguese traders in the 16th century and is a first cousin to our cold fried fish.
But there is one dish which remains stubbornly unique to British Jews. Fried gefilte fish or “chopped and fried” — a fusion of the poached, chopped fish brought to this country by Eastern European Jews and the frying techniques of the Sephardim — is not cooked in any other community.
Unless your kitchen has a very efficient extractor, the process of frying fish can be, let’s face it, a little smelly. However, it is also quick, not ridiculously unhealthy (if the fat is drained away from the fish), and a good way of getting children to eat fish. It is also very adaptable.
Traditionally, Jews favour plaice and non-Jews prefer cod, but fried fish is equally delicious when made with sustainable species like coley or pollock. The only decision you need to make is whether to allow it to cool down, or go native and eat it hot.