Fish and Chips: A Sephardic Delicacy

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By Nathan Burstein

Published March 31, 2010, issue of April 09, 2010.
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Forget the bagels and lox: The most popular Jewish contribution to world cuisine may be, in fact, fish and chips.

The quintessentially British meal is celebrating a major birthday this year, with the United Kingdom’s National Federation of Fish Friers declaring 2010 the 150th anniversary of England’s national dish. “Each of the ingredients had existed [separately] for some time prior,” the federation reports on its Web site, “but [they] got together in 1860 to make the perfect partnership.” The organization cites 1860 as the first time that fish and chips were sold in combination, pointing to restaurants that opened that year in London and Lancashire.

The anniversary has inspired nationwide investigations into the dish’s history, with newspapers and culinary experts across England noting its possible Jewish origins. Earlier this year, The Independent newspaper cited no less an authority than Thomas Jefferson, quoting the American president’s description of “fried fish in the Jewish fashion” that he sampled during a visit to Britain. The newspaper also pointed to England’s first Jewish cookbook, published in 1846, which contained a recipe for fried fish.

Its codification in writing wasn’t the dish’s starting point, however, and may have come long after the meal’s arrival. English chefs, including Nigella Lawson, the celebrity cooking show host, have pointed to Jewish refugees from 16th-century Portugal as the first to fry fish in batter.

“Fish and chips, which everyone thinks of as very English, is in fact Sephardic Jewish,” Lawson said recently, speaking at the March 16 reopening of the London Jewish Museum.

The meal’s other key component, fried potatoes, originated in France, Holland or Belgium, depending on which expert you ask.

Despite the influx of fast-food and other competitors in recent decades, fish and chips has maintained its popularity among British eaters. The Federation of Fish Friers claims that there are at least 8,500 fish and chips shops across England, or 12 for every branch of McDonald’s.


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