Winston Churchill called them “the good companions”. John Lennon smothered his in tomato ketchup. Michael Jackson liked them with mushy peas.
They sustained morale through two world wars and helped fuel Britain’s industrial prime.
For generations, fish and chips have fed millions of memories – eaten with greasy fingers on a seaside holiday, a pay-day treat at the end of the working week or a late-night supper on the way home from the pub.
Few can resist the mouth-watering combination – moist white fish in crisp golden batter, served with a generous portion of hot, fluffy chips.
Everyone has their own preferences and tastes vary from one part of the country to another. Cod or haddock? Salt and vinegar? Pickled onion? Scraps?
Like Morecambe and Wise or Wallace and Gromit, fish and chips are a classic double act – and yet they started life as solo performers. And their roots are not as British as you might think.
The story of the humble chip goes back to the 17th Century to either Belgium or France, depending who you believe.
Oddly enough, the chip may have been invented as a substitute for fish, rather than an accompaniment. When the rivers froze over and nothing could be caught, resourceful housewives began cutting potatoes into fishy shapes and frying them as an alternative.
Around the same time, fried fish was introduced into Britain by Jewish refugees from Portugal and Spain.
The fish was usually sold by street sellers from large trays hung round their necks. Charles Dickens refers to an early fish shop or “fried fish warehouse” in Oliver Twist (1839) where the fish generally came with bread or baked potatoes.
North or south?
Who first had the bright idea to marry fish with chips remains the subject of fierce controversy and we will probably never know for sure. It is safe to say it was somewhere in England but arguments rage over whether it was up north or down south.
Some credit a northern entrepreneur called John Lees. As early as 1863, it is believed he was selling fish and chips out of a wooden hut at Mossley market in industrial Lancashire.
Others claim the first combined fish ‘n’ chip shop was actually opened by a Jewish immigrant, Joseph Malin, within the sound of Bow Bells in East London around 1860.
However it came about, the marriage quickly caught on. At a time when working-class diets were bleak and unvaried, fish and chips were a tasty break from the norm.
Outlets sprung up across the country and soon they were as much a part of Victorian England as steam trains and smog.
Italian migrants passing through English towns and cities saw the growing queues and sensed a business opportunity, setting up shops in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
To keep prices down, portions were often wrapped in old newspaper – a practice that survived as late as the 1980s when it was ruled unsafe for food to come into contact with newspaper ink without grease-proof paper in between.
It has even been suggested that fish and chips helped win World War I.
According to Professor John Walton, author of Fish and Chips and the British Working Class, the government made safeguarding supplies a priority.
“The cabinet knew it was vital to keep families on the home front in good heart,” says Professor Walton. “Unlike the German regime that failed to keep its people well fed and that was one reason why Germany was defeated.
“Historians can sometimes be a bit snooty about these things but fish and chips played a big part in bringing contentment and staving off disaffection.”
George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) put fish and chips first among the home comforts that helped keep the masses happy and “averted revolution”.
During World War II, ministers bent over backwards to make sure fish and chips were one of the few foods that were never rationed.
These days, fish and chips are no longer king of the takeaway. Burgers, fried chicken, pizza, Indian and Chinese dishes all now outsell fried fish.
Cost is part of the problem. Strains on stocks of cod and haddock have pushed prices up, while health concerns about deep-fried food have turned many consumers away.
But – despite the recession – sales are rising, according to Seafish, the official authority on all things seafood. Their researchers reckon fish and chips are not as bad for us as many other takeaways, containing fewer calories and less fat.
‘Tricks of the trade’
At the Leeds headquarters of the National Federation of Fish Friers, they say the downturn has boosted business as people seek “comfort food” in tough times.
The three-day course it runs for newcomers keen to join the profession has seen a doubling in demand for places. Here trainees can learn the tricks of the trade.
Among them is Bill Bradbury, who has traveled from Canada just to come on this course and get hands-on experience.
Under the tutor’s careful gaze, Bill tentatively lowers a carefully-battered fish into the hot chrome fryer. As it touches the bubbling oil, it sizzles furiously.
Bill was recently made redundant from a steel company in Alberta and is planning to sink his savings into a fish and chip shop back home.
“There’s definitely a market for it. There’s a big British army base nearby and loads of ex-pats who are desperate for a good chippy.
“Friends were all offering me money to come. They were saying ‘please, it would be great if someone could make proper fish and chips.'”
The pupils break for lunch. No prizes for guessing what is on the menu.
There are smiles all round as super-sized bottles of salt and vinegar are passed from one student to another.
Bill grabs a small plastic fork and grins as he spears a hunk of golden haddock and a piping hot chip. A burst of steam rises as he tucks in: “Delicious.”
A century and a half on, this great British staple still goes down a treat.