Let's Eat

The fish dish only Jews leave cold


“The fish must be market fresh and the batter crisp and light. I have cod battered, but haddock in matzah meal, cod is just too thick for that. I like my chips dry and slightly crisp with lots of hot fluffy potato in the centre and only fried once. Malt vinegar, followed by salt, because if you put salt on first the vinegar washes it away. Tartare sauce is critical, mayonnaise, capers and gherkins add that tang.”

Food entrepreneur Mario Budwig has got a lot to say about the humble fish supper. Best known as the founder of Millie’s Cookies, one of his more recent ventures is Oliver’s in Belsize Park — a smart, light, fresh fish and chip restaurant, providing an up-to-date take on a British classic.

“I grew up with fried fish on Shabbat and the Yom Tovim,” he explains, “but not from fish and chip shops because it wasn’t kosher.”

While many fish and chip shops fry scampi and burgers in the same oil as fish, Oliver’s is “Jewish friendly”, as Budwig puts it. “We do fish in the kosher style, and there’s no treif on the menu.”

“We use Rakusen’s matzah meal, it’s very popular with our non-Jewish customers. It’s a slightly drier, fresher taste,” he explains. “We have huge orders for cold fried fish for the Jewish holidays.”

We have huge orders for cold fried fish for the Jewish holidays. - Mario Budwig

Saul Reuben, executive chef at trendy West London chain Kerbisher and Malt is also a fan of matzah meal for its crunch and recommends choosing a delicate fish like haddock or plaice. “The softer the fish the better for matzah meal.” And the fish must be the freshest: “All the fish I sell tomorrow is in the sea today,” he says.

Oliver’s and Kerbisher are the modern face of Jewish fish and chips, but it is a relationship that stretches back hundreds of years.

In 16th century Andalusia, pescado frito — whole fish, coated in flour and fried in oil — was eaten cold on Shabbat afternoon by the Jewish population. While many cultures fried fish, Jews were unique in traditionally eating their fried fish cold.

Claudia Roden in her Book of Jewish Food says this now so familiar dish made its way to our shores via the Portuguese Marranos, or crypto-Jews, who arrived in England in the 16th century, marking the beginning of the English love affair with “Jewish fried fish”.

The first known written reference to Jewish fried fish in the UK is in 1781, in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, which includes a recipe for “The Jews’ way of preserving salmon, and all sorts of fish”. The dish made its first appearance in a Jewish cookbook in 1846, in Lady Judith Montefiore’s The Jewish Manual.

The first step towards the chippy was recorded in Charles Dickens’s reference in Oliver Twist (1839) to an early fish shop — a “fried fish warehouse”. Fish would be bought from fish shops or street sellers carrying it on trays around their neck, and eaten with bread or baked potatoes.

Fried potato recipes were already widely available in the mid-1800s, and the stage was set for a truly fortuitous marriage.

But was it really a Jewish shidduch? Wendy Durham, editor of trade magazine Fish and Chips and Fast Food, trawled through 19th century census data and the Post Office directory, to answer once and for all. She discovered that it was a young Jewish man Joseph Malin, of Bow, east London, who opened Malin’s, the first ever fish and chip shop, in 1860.

The Malins were recorded as living in the area in the 1840s, but the census records them as rug weavers. Durham suggests the family may have lied because of the low status of the trade and the suspicion the working class had of census collectors.

In 1891, for the first time, Joseph H Malins of Bethnal Green was listed in the census as a fishmonger — his wife as a fishmonger’s assistant, and their daughters Charlotte and Margaret were described as “potatoe peeler” and “fish frier”.

Then in 1896 Samuel Isaacs opened a fish restaurant selling fish and chips, bread and butter and tea for nine pence. His restaurants were carpeted, had table service, tablecloths, flowers, china and cutlery, making an upmarket dining experience affordable to the working classes for the first time.

The long tradition of Jewish fish and chips was continued by places like Johnny Isaacs and Grahame’s Sea Fare in London, to the present day, to a table decked in bright pots of flowers, on a street in Belsize Park.;

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