Let's Eat

Cod's gift to British cuisine


Fore almost 200 years there has been a link between Jews and the most important culinary delicacy of Britain - fish and chips. And I have spent the past few years trying to find out everything I can about the dish.

In the first place, some of the most important English cookbooks carried recipes referring to the Jewishness of fried fish. A 1781 edition of Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery Made Plain And Easy described ''The Jews way of preserving Salmon and all sorts of fish'' which involved frying in egg yolk and flour and then placing the finished product in a jar filled with oil, vinegar and spices, which will ''keep good a twelvemonth''. Almost 100 years later the famous Victorian celebrity chef Alexis Soyer provided a recipe in his bestselling Shilling Cookery Book For The People for ''Fried Fish, Jewish Fashion'' involving dipping halibut in a batter of water and flour and then deep frying.

Nineteenth century newspapers, meanwhile, pointed to the existence of Jewish sellers of fried fish. In 1824, the Morning Chronicle informs us of a boxing match between Barney Aaron, ''the light-weight champion of the twelve tribes'' and Peter Warren in Colacbrook, ''eighteen miles from London''. The evening before the contest the area around Petticoat Lane in east London ''was occupied in frying fish and cooking other victuals for refreshment on the road'' for those Jews who would make the journey to watch Aaron box. In 1853, the Morning Post carried a story about ''Sarah Lipman, spinster, an ordinary-looking young woman of the Jewish persuasion'' who ''was indicted for endeavouring to conceal the birth of her infant child'' by burning it. From the reporting of the story we learn that Lipman ''kept a fried fish shop in No. 32, Cable Street, Whitechapel.''

Perhaps most importantly, the owner of the first fish and chip shop recognised as such by the National Federation of Fish Fryers in 1968 consisted of the apparently Jewish Joseph Malin whose business began trading in the East End of London in 1860. This London Jewish connection survives into the 20th century. Kelly's Post Office London Directory from 1923 lists 776 individuals who owned fried fish shops: 148 of these have either obviously Jewish names, or at least central European names. Those in the former category include 18 Cohens, 11 Isaacs and 11 Levys, spread throughout London. Overall, the 148 Jewish sounding fish shops in London represented over 19 per cent of the total.

Anglo-Jewry has claimed fish and chips for itself in recent decades mostly notably through the pages of this newspaper but also in Claudia Roden's Boook of Jewish Food, with a recipe dating back to 1544. However, this ownership of fried fish has a long history, evidenced by a long description in Israel Zangwill's classic (1893) Children of the Ghetto culminating in the statement: ''Fried fish binds Anglo-Jewry more than all the lip-professions of unity. Its savour is early known of youth, and the divine flavour, endeared by a thousand childish recollections, entwined with the most sacred associations, draws back the hoary sinner into the paths of piety''.

But as with all aspects of the history of the Jews in Britain, antisemitism lurks just beneath the surface. Most of the Victorian descriptions prove far from complementary and often utilise an antisemitic trait which suggests that the smell of fried fish meant the presence of Jews. Most blatantly George Augusts Sala, when visiting the Theatre Royal on Low Lane in 1872 wrote: ''There was a representative of one of the Ten Tribes in every private box; all the money- and check takers were process-servers; the wardrobe was supplied by costumiers who carried bags on their backs, and wore three hats instead of one; and the refreshment rooms smelt of fried fish''. Similarly, a visitor to Margate in 1849 wrote that: ''The first peculiarity that struck me was the strong prevailing smell of fried fish'' and explained this by the fact that ''the great Rabbi Adler, the high priest, was here on a visit''. Interestingly, by the beginning of the twentieth century, when fish and chips developed a stronger association with the working classes of all ethnic groups than it did with the Jews, the smell of fried fish became a working class trait in much middle class commentary.

Anglo-Jewry had a close connection with the evolution of fried fish throughout England. In the middle of the 19th century the development of the railways (allowing all sections of the population rather than just those in coastal areas to eat fresh fish for the first time) and the increasing popularity of potatoes as a staple carbohydrate meant that fish and chips became the food of the working classes. But it was Anglo-Jewry who were the dish's true inspiration.

Panikos Panayi is the author of Fish And Chips: A History (Reaktion Books, £18).

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