The Best Fish-and-Chips in the World
History tells is the first fish-and-chip shop in London was opened by a certain Joseph Malin in 1860 and growing in popularity throughout the United Kingdom during the mid-19th century with a correlation to the opening up of the North Sea fishing grounds and one assumes adapting to a plentiful supply of affordable fish, as it was very much a working class meal.
New Zealand was officially 20 years old in 1860, that is colonised by the British and the Treaty of Waitangi inked and according to New Zealand food historian Tony Simpson, it was well before the First World War that fish-and-chips was introduced to Antipodean shores, although there is no exact records.
We most certainly grew up with fish-and-chips. I still have vivid memories of our local fish-and-chip shop in Gonville, Wanganui, as far back as when I was about 5 years-old and I can still visualise and smell as you walked in the door, all those soggy chips cooked in dripping.
We would make chip butty’s, that is a chip sandwich, with white bread and it had to white bread, wholemeal just doesn’t work, with lashings of butter, the hot chips melting the butter to a delicious combination of potato and lots of fat! The word butty has its roots in Northern England meaning "bread and butter", not that we new that at the time.
Come to think of it, fish seemed to play a very secondary part, actually we much preferred battered sausages or saveloys, those weird bright red sausages we seemed to live on as kids and nobody every questioned what was in them; the mind boggles. Anyway, the fish invariably used then was shark, passed off with some fancy name like Flake or Lemon Fish; hence we used to irritate our chipper by ordering, “A dollars worth of shark and tatties thanks”, with a bit of Scottish in the vernacular.
I actually worked in a fish-and-chip shop when I was a teenager, the legendary Norm’s Diner, in Hamilton. It was more hamburger joint than fish-and-chips and open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, which was pretty rare back in the early 1970s pre-dating McDonald’s coming to New Zealand.
So, here I was all of 12 years old, working 4 solid hours every Saturday and Sunday morning making chips. There were no frozen par-cooked chips back then and it was an endless process of tipping sack after sack of potatoes in an automated scrubbing/peeling machine that looked a bit like a concrete mixer, and although pretty efficient you still had to take out the eyes and blemishes by hand.
Next was the automated chip slicer, the sort of machine that would give a work place safety officer a heart attack these days, little lone in the hands of a 12 year-old. It would be 6 months before Norm thought me worthy of going to the next level of my chip apprenticeship, actually par-cooking them, and one of the most career influencing moments of my life; I knew that I’d never work in a kitchen again in my life.
That’s not quite true. At first it was exhilarating stuff (for a 12 year-old) and I showed so much aptitude that it wasn’t long before I was making batter and par-cooking fish, sausages, potato cakes and pāua fritters, and even rose to the highest rank of actually cooking burgers; figure that, a full grill-chef by 13 years-old.
But I ultimately arrived at the conclusion this was a shit job and bloody hard work. Mind you, I was earning great money, like NZ$20 a weekend, back then (Circa 1974) serious money, even though Norm was totally ripping me off on pocket-money rates and I should have been on full adult wages.
Actually, I should not have been there at all, as it was totally illegal to be cooking or near a kitchen at this age, but the steady stream of policeman and fireman that patronised Norm’s seemed oblivious to my age. And Norm, well he didn’t much care much for rules or regulations, health or otherwise. I never saw him without a roll your own cigarette in his mouth, cooking or not, and the place was a damn cockroach farm with the grease pit from hell, which all added to the flavour.
You would have thought that whole experience (more so cleaning the grease pit!) would have put me off fish-and-chips for life, and yet somewhere in the subconscious I knew this was an invaluable experience – in the realities of life.
What I find most curious about fish-and-chips, it is not as universally popular as you might think. Given much of the world lives near coastline and it’s hard to imagine any culture that has fish in the diet not grasping deep-frying fish. Take the Japanese, who have been using Tempura methods since the mid-sixteenth Century, even if this was introduced by the Portuguese.
I can’t imagine the Japanese being too impressed if your referred to their exacting cooking techniques in the same context as fish-and-chips, but this is the where a vital definition needs to be drawn; fish-and-chips should not be talked of in the same manner is deep-fried fish and in fact, least my opinion, the more you try to finesse fish-and-chips, the more you disconnect with the true spirit and emotional-flavour and you are also messing with primal human behaviourism.
Granted, possibly the best deep-fried fish I have ever had in my life is beer-battered King George Whiting and Pommes Frites at the hands of Chef Michael Bacash, the guru of fish on this planet, www.bacash.com.au And you wouldn’t want to knock John Rubira's deep-fried Rock Flathead, least you were wanting to insult most of the Melbourne underworld.
And yes there will be infinite examples of the perfect deep-fried fish the world over and even my daughter would have her say, and tell you her ‘Local Cod and Chips, Deep-fried in Lard’ at Rick Stein’s, The Seafood Restaurant in Padstow was ‘Really yummy!’.
However, the point is real fish-and-chips is not meant to be perfected; the imperfections are the embodiment of its core (wholesomeness), but above all it is a meal that intrinsically is a state of mind, and this mind-set has no relevance in a restaurant or dining table and experience is only as good as that very moment of time, or place, you are tucking in to it.
Peculiarly, the ability to understand this state of mind and strong evidence that fish-and-chips addiction might well be hereditary, it is only the Commonwealth countries Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa that truly embraced the psyche of fish-and-chips. Extraordinary really; to think of the entire American coastline and the addiction to deep-fried food, and yet fish-and-chips never caught, save for a few outposts in Massachusetts. Perhaps it’s that “We are not English, we are American” thing or maybe there is no working class America?
The English normally use Cod for their fish-and-chips, like it’s not just a tradition but an institution. My daughter and I have tried Cod fish-and-chips all over England including down in Cornwall, where you would expect the Cod to be pretty good, as in that’s about as fresh as it gets, straight off the boats. Cod’s OK, although I think Snapper is superior in context with New Zealand.
Actually the best Cod fish-and-chips we have tried in England thus far, was from the legendary Toffs Fish, 38 Mullswell Hill Broadway, Highgate www.toffsfish.co.uk my daughter declaring “It’s the best fish-and-chips she has ever had”. Mind you, it was drizzling with rain and hovering around 10 degrees Celsius, perfect fish-and-chip weather moreover, we ate almost all of it walking back in the rain to where we were staying, all adding to the fun and flavour.
However, I have to tell you this accolade has recently been surpassed, by Bobby’s Fresh Fish Market, right on the Tauranga wharf (1 Dive Road), on the East Coast of New Zealand’s North Island. My daughter and I have been here twice within the last six months, most recently visiting my brother, who lives in Tauranga, and we think this is arguably the best fish-and-chips in the world!
I know that’s throwing down the gauntlet to the English, and yes, it’s a polemic that would be impossible to get a consensus on, like pizza... what constitutes the best pizza in the world? And like pizza, the best fish-and-chips will be somewhere its gone native, even if somewhat prejudiced by local opinion who truly believe theirs is the archetypical but ultimately you will be more influenced by the location than anything.
Maybe that’s the reason why you need to go out of your way to experience truly remarkable fish-and-chips – to be by the sea and be in a seafood state of mind.
Bobby’s Fresh Fish Market ticks every box in this regard, perched right on the wharf, it is as much a fresh fish and seafood provider as it is fish-and-chip shop and the fishing boats literally pulling up right outside their backdoor. Fish simply does not get any fresher than this, unless of course you’ve been out there catching your own.
Even more reassuring, when you walk into Bobby’s Fresh Fish Market, you can’t actually smell fish, which is another good sign that everything is really fresh and clean here. Equally reassuring is the constant stream of people coming through, like a line of people at a Hawker Stall in Singapore, it’s the best lead to quality, tasty food you can get.
There is a real buzz to Bobby’s and perhaps more so the day we were there with the sun out and even though wasn’t lunchtime, I recall about three in the afternoon, pretty much packed. We were lucky to get a seat at a table outside, and this is by no means a restaurant at all, rather you just jostle for a spot on benches or sit yourself down on the wharf and take in the view.
The standard order of fish-and-chips here changes with the catch and if it’s Gurnard that happens to be plentiful that day, then Gurnard it is. They don’t do shark here thanks. You can also order any fish you like from the counter display and they will deep-fry it up for you, which is what we did as the Snapper looked enticingly good.
Interestingly, New Zealanders initially preferred Snapper when fish-and-chips was first introduced and plentiful then, until the decline of this catch and then moved on to other white-fleshed fish and these days Gurnard and Blue Cod or more the norm. You might come across Flake (Shark) in big city takeaways, which would have been frozen and a product of those uncouth Australians.
But I have to say, our Snapper at Bobby’s was absolutely spot on with slivers of white flesh melting in the mouth and that sinful fatty batter saturating the senses – halfway between heaven and a heart attack. Then there’s the chip butty, appallingly commercial white bread, big semi-soft chips and butter oozing everywhere – disgustingly good!
We ate enough Snapper and chips to easily feed a family of six between the three of us, and it cost us all of NZ$29. I can’t think of (western) meal I have that delivered so much satisfaction for so little money in a long time, well, except the last time we were here. The Snapper alone would have cost three times this in Singapore, without stating the obvious, clocking up some food miles.
Still, there’s the airfare we paid to get here! OK, it’s the most expensive fish-and-chips you will ever have, in that regard, bit there’s no question you have to be seaside, and eat it on the spot, if you want truly, genuinely fresh fish-and-chips.
I suddenly have this memory flashback of being on the wharf at Port Albert, a tiny fishing village about four-hour’s drive southeast of Melbourne that was first Customs and Immigration post in the state of Victoria, Australia, and predictably the first licensed hotel is there. We are sitting right on the wharf, watching a school of herrings swim through the crystal clear water, as we scoff down the fresh local flathead. It was so good!
And I am sure you have your favourite fish-and-chip place or story, which you can share with us, in the comments box or email me; firstname.lastname@example.org and we can map out the best fish-and-chips places around the world. We going to Maine, New England this summer; I wonder if the do fish-and-chips in Maine? Anyone...?
Singapore does not rate that high with fish-and-chips although our local, Greenwood Fish Market www.fishshop.sg does a reasonable job with Australian Whiting, or we select from their excellent range of New Zealand and Australian caught fish, normally Snapper. Actually, it’s probably the best fishmonger in Singapore in terms its international selection of fresh oysters, lobsters and fish. But I do like going to the Ghim Moh Wet Market to my favourite local fishmonger, Mr Chua http://www.thewanderingpalate.com/produce/singapores-best-fishmonger/
Well, its Friday and guess what’s for dinner! As the adage goes, ‘You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country of the boy.”