All right, fish and chips is not Scottish per se. Like poverty and low pensions, it is British. But a “fish supper” is the Scottish way of describing a central phenomenon of our cultural, emotional and spiritual life.

To describe something as “fish and chips”, as others in the UK do, is prosaic and shallow, lacking romance and inferring that the repast is not a proper meal. We add further lexicological sophistication in recording that fish without chips is known as a “single fish” in Scotland, where it is also rhyming slang for micturition.

Thus, “Ah fancy a single fish fur ma tea” expresses entirely different intent from, “Right, ah’m away for a single fish.”

Further adducing our distinctiveness, the fish under advisement is haddock in Scotland and cod elsewhere. Anyone who prefers cod to Melanogrammus aeglefinus is taking the piscine. As Alan Davidson said in his salty classic North Atlantic Seafood: “The haddock is held by many, including the knowledgeable Icelanders, to be superior to the cod.”

As usual, there are divisions in Scotland, in this instance between those preferring sauce or vinegar on their fish suppers. Suffice to say for now that, growing up in Edinburgh, I consider a preference for salt and vinegar to be a sure indicator of moral degradation.

In all other respects, however, we Scots are united in our love of fish suppers. They seal the reputation of Friday evening as the happiest time of our lives. 

The feel of that warm, greasy bundle in our hands almost makes life worth living. The aroma of the chippy on a summer day by the seaside strengthens the case of those who believe Heaven exists here on Earth.

Home comfort

HeraldScotland: Quiz with Fish and Chip Supper

I’m over-egging the white pudding here and furthermore, after so much Caledonian grandstanding, we proceed now to the usual deconstruction of the famous dish’s origins, which lie with the initiative of other folk.
Well, we all ken that. We’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns, and extend our undying appreciation to the Jewish people who brought fried, battered  fish to our shores, their descendants in England who first put it together with chips, and the Italians who opened so many much-valued chippies the length and breadth of Scotland.

Learned histories say that, fleeing persecution in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Portugese Jews arrived in Britain, bringing a tradition of frying flour-battered white fish in oil on Fridays: with cooking forbidden on Saturdays, they could have this cold next day. Locals loved this, and fish “cooked in the Jewish manner” was sold widely on London’s streets.

That was one side of the equation. The history of chips is a different kettle of fish. Some say their origin lies in 17th-century Belgium where, with a local river frozen, potatoes were cut into fish shapes and fried. This peculiar practice inevitably made its way to Britain where a tripe seller called “Granny” Duce sold the first chips to the public in 1854.

But who had the inspired idea of putting fish and chips together? Well, the first fish and chip shop is said to have been opened by Joseph Malin, an Eastern European Jewish immigrant, in London in 1860. Three years later, John Lees opened a “Chipped Potato Restaurant”, in Mossley, near Oldham, with “first fish and chip shop in the world” emblazoned on his window. 

A fry guy

HeraldScotland: Sunday Night 'Supper' Club

With industrialisation, and railways linking fishing ports to industrial towns, “fish and chips” quickly became a favourite with the English proletariat. Meanwhile, Edward De Gernier, a Belgian immigrant, brought chips to Scotland in the 1870s, settling in Dundee, and setting up shop in the Grassmarket area.

By 1910, there were around 25,000 chippies across the UK and, by the 1930s, 35,000 (falling to 10,000 by 2009). During the Second World War, fish suppers were one of the few foods not rationed. Churchill said they were “good companions” to morale.

And so they remain to this day, when fears are raised that, as with pubs, this crucial element of traditional life might be threatened by the energy crisis.

Sufficient unto the day, and we should say that the Scottish chippy offers folk of dubious character a fair sufficiency of alternatives to fish. These include: chicken, pizza, mince pie, steak pie, macaroni pie, smoked sausage, black pudding, white pudding, red pudding (principally in Tayside and Fife), king rib, haggis; and, in Orkney, pattie – battered mince and tatties.

Various parts of the country might also offer tattie scones and burgers. Explorers have reported that, though often thought mythical, the chip steak (chopped meat with seasoning) and mock chop (battered and fried lamb kebab) can be found in Dundee. As for deep-fried Mars bars, never seen one and refuse to participate in this contrived insult.

So the chippy has broadened its culinary horizons. In the past, nine out of 10 orders would be fish suppers. Today, it’s reportedly more like three out of 10. Disgraceful.

Got the shakes

HeraldScotland: Fish & chipsFish & chips (Image: sajk[DO)

Disgraceful brings us back to salt and vinegar. As with any important part of cultural life, there’s a degree of ritual when waddling forth to collect one’s supper. The order is placed. The food is cooked and then laid open before the customer’s salivating eyes. At this point, the question is asked: “Anyhinn oanit?”

This refers to one’s condiments of choice. Here is revealed the Glasgow/Scotland vs Edinburgh divide. In the latter, the correct liturgical response is “salt an’ sauce”. In the former, it’s “salt an’ vinegar”. To be fair, vinegar helps quell the lard in one’s repast. But here’s the rub: Embra’s broon “chippy sauce” is made with vinegar and sauce combined. Hence its superiority.

Other accompaniments are widely available now. Mushy peas work well. Buttered rolls are grand for a surfeit of chips. Pickled eggs and pickled onions are also offered, if you want to end up in hospital. As for curry sauce, your correspondent has never tried it because it is common.

In northern England, they offer gravy, which is thick, rich and dunkable. However, as that sounds like the Conservative Party, it’s never caught on in Scotland where, regardless of accoutrements, the fish supper ever comforts our souls.