Fish and chips: a traditional British fast food favorite

Fish and chips, the traditional British fast food, lives in spite of an increasing number of such fast-food ''imports'' as ubiquitous hamburgers and fried chicken - and in spite of a European Economic Community ban on its customary wrapping in newspaper.

Fish such as cod or haddock fried in a thin, crispy batter, served with thick-cut chips, salted and doused liberally with a shaking of malt vinegar, remains the national favorite, indeed, some might say, the national dish.

Admittedly, many fish-and-chips shops seem to sell little fish these days, concentrating more and more on meat pies, sausages, chicken and chips, and other take-away foods.

Others, in fashionable districts of London or in the north, have gone to the other extreme, offering a range of up to 15 varieties of fish, including such expensive aristocrats as Dover sole, served with chips at the table by waitresses.

To our way of thinking, authentic fish and chips is a humble, simple meal best sampled from any of numerous fish fryers' shops up and down the country.

Half the pleasure of the meal is the anticipation while standing in a queue and hearing the fish and potatoes sizzling in boiling fat. There is also special pleasure in eating this simple feast out of the paper with your fingers, outside , on a blowy end-of-winter afternoon.

In the north of England, at establishments such as Harry Ramsden's in Yorkshire, the most famous of these shops in the country, haddock is the most popular fish.

In London, such varieties as dogfish (rock salmon), monkfish, skate, and plaice are preferred in addition to cod, which is the bestseller elsewhere in the south.

Arguments arise, too, over the preferred medium in which to fry. Yorkshiremen insist that the best fish and chips must be cooked in pure beef dripping, which lends its distinctive meaty flavor. Harry Ramsden's, for example, fries only in dripping.

Lard is used extensively elsewhere, and there are many who claim that it gives the best results. Some fryers use a mixture of dripping and lard, while vegetable oil is also popular.

The latter is probably the most convenient fat to use as vegetable oil can be heated to a higher temperature without breaking down, and thus allows the fish to be fried even crispier.

What all conscientious fryers do agree on is that the best batter is the simplest; a frugal mixture of flour, baking powder, salt, and water (but no eggs) is both the cheapest to make and gives the lightest, crispiest results.

The batter, dipped into boiling oil, seals immediately, and thus serves to keep the fish moist and juicy. No matter what type of fish is used, it should always be as fresh as possible, never frozen.

Fresh fish caught the previous night is delivered daily to fish-and-chips establishments up and down the country, direct by truck from the northern fishing port of Grimsby.

Surprisingly, in spite of metrication, fish is one commodity still sold by the stone. A stone weighs 14 pounds. A busy shop might fry up to 10 to 15 stone of fish a day.

Chips are thick-cut French fries. The favorite potato to fry, it is generally agreed, is a variety known as Maris Piper, a firm, unblemished, floury potato. In America, Idaho potatoes make an admirable substitute.

Chips should be cut about 3/8-inch to 1/2-inch thick. Both the fish and chips , fresh out of the fryer, are salted, then sprinkled with malt vinegar.

Though for general cooking purposes, malt vinegar is perhaps overly assertive , it is ideal with fish and chips, for it both cuts the fat and gives that authentic British chip-shop flavor. Fish and Chips 4 large unskinned fillets of fresh cod, haddock, or flounder 2 pounds peeled potatoes, cut in 3/8-inch to 1/2-inch chips Vegetable oil, lard, or dripping to half fill a large pan Malt vinegar Batter: 1 cup plain flour 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon baking powder 1 1/4 cups cold water Drop or two of malt vinegar

To make batter, sift flour into a mixing bowl; add salt and baking powder. Gradually add cold water and a drop or two of malt vinegar to make a thin batter. Mix well, or liquidize, then allow to sit for about a half-hour.

Meanwhle, heat oil, lard, or dripping in a large pan to a temperature of about 365 degrees F. Fry chips first, but do not cook thoroughly. Drain in basket or on kitchen towel.

Next, dip each piece of fish into batter, coating fully.

Fry 2 to 4 fillets at a time, depending on size of fish and pan. Cook until brown and crispy, about 7 to 10 minutes, then remove from fat and drain.

Crispy pieces of batter left in the fat are known as gribbles, or scratching. They can be removed and served with chips.

Finally, return chips to the hot fat and cook until golden brown. Salt both fish and chips, and serve with malt vinegar to taste. Serves 4.

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