Eating fish and chips is like an orgasm but without the huffy, sweating although you should still wash your hands afterwards because, like safe sex, it’s best experienced with the fingers. If there is a Heaven you can be sure it has a fish and chip shop with an endless supply of cod, hake, rock salmon, fish cakes, pickled eggs and wallies.
For the uninitiated some explanations are necessary. ‘Fish’ in this case must be enclosed in a light, crisp, airy batter, preferably a beer batter. If it’s breaded, it ain’t fish and chips.
Nobody knows for sure when or why this method of cooking fish was invented although it bears some similarity to Japanese tempura. It is most likely that it began as a way of cooking fish quickly in a way that sealed in the juices and kept the flesh tender and moist.
However it developed fish and chips became a cheap staple weekend treat for generations of Britons until north sea fish, especially cod, began to run out and prices went through the roof.
Cod, hake and rock salmon were the fish of choice. Rock salmon has nothing to do with salmon, of course, it was a name adopted to make dogfish, a kind of shark, more acceptable in the marketplace. Most of the flavour of any flesh, including pork and beef by the way, resides in the animal’s body-fat and north sea fish, living in cold waters requiring fat deposits, are particularly well-flavoured.
This presents something of a challenge when living in the tropics because most tropical species have less fat than their northern counterparts and thus less flavour.
No, you can’t use tuna. The fish must be white fleshed, from salt water (So Tilapia, or Egyptian carp, isn’t suitable) and firm enough to undergo deep frying without falling apart, so I wouldn’t recommend Dorado. Taniguie works well for me.
So it’s down to the talipapa or the local market to rustle up some taniguie fillets. For true English speakers remember that Filipinos copy the American dialect’s French snootiness and pronounce fillet as ‘fill-ay’, just as they pronounce ‘herb’ as ‘erb’. It’s an American affectation which has its origins in Daniel Webster’s desire to separate American English from real English by misspelling the words and using non-English pronunciation, basically to get up the nose of the Brits.
This is an issue to which true Filipino nationalists should attend: since Filipino languages pronounce words as they are written, Filipinos should rightly pronounce the final ‘t’ in ‘fillet’ and the ‘h’ in herbs.
Now, wish and pat dry the fish, put some flour on a plate and dredge the fillets (fill-ets, remember) so they’re well covered and leave them be while we chat about the batter. If you don’t flour the fish, the batter will fall off when you’re cooking.
Batter is critical. If it ain’t right, it ain’t right. When it’s right, the batter is puffed and crispy with a creamy layer between it and the fish. Making it is a bit of an art. It’ a good idea to make the batter while the chips are undergoing their preliminary cooking. Some people like to leave the batter for an hour before cooking but frankly I haven’t noticed much difference.
A cup of all-purpose flour is probably enough for two fillets. Some folk advise adding bicarbonate of soda or baking soda to the flour but I tried it without because my sari-sari store doesn’t stock it and it worked fine. You could, of course use self-raising flour which already has the soda.
Put the flour, a bit of salt and a dash of pepper in a bowl and mix. Now open a bottle of beer, San Miguel does nicely, and drink some. This is to ensure that the beer hasn’t gone off. Mix a little of the beer into the flour, then a little more, make sure it’s well-mixed and without lumps. What you’re looking for is a texture like double cream. If you want to get arty-farty, dip a tablespoon into the mix and turn it bowl down, the batter should cover the surface easily.
Drink a little beer to make sure it hasn’t gone off, or make up your own excuse. For those wary of alcohol, this will evaporate during cooking.
Now for the chips. Chips are not Frito-Lays. They are NOT that crispy, thin, slice of potato invented by a pissed off chef at Silver Springs, Colorado. These are called crisps in real English. I have, indeed, ordered fish and chips and got breaded fish and a side of crisps. Wrong mistake, as they say in these parts.
Nor, it should be emphasized, are chips the same as French fries. French fries are, in fact, a Belgian invention, often eaten at roadside stalls with mustard, but Americans aren’t awful good at geography. A couple of years ago a US politician, distraught at France’s determined disobedience to American instruction, announced that French fries should henceforth be called Freedom Fries, sending the rest of the world into guffaws of ridicule. Had he recommended calling them Belgian Fries he’d have improved the average American’s knowledge of geography, corrected a historical error and pissed off the French all in one blow.
A French/Belgian fry is thin and long, more of a garnish than a food item. The British chip is chunkier.
So, peel your potato (waxy textured spuds are better), and slice around a quarter inch thick or a little more but NOT less. Put the slice on its side and cut in four strips. That will be about the right size. Wash them to remove the surface starch and pat dry.
Put enough oil in the pan or wok to deep fry. If you’re using the usual gas stove, turn the heat about half way. When the oil is hot enough – test it by carefully dipping a piece of raw dry chip, if it sizzles the oil is hot enough. Put in the chips and let cook until they’re done through but NOT browned. Remove the chips and let drain.
Turn the heat to full. Drink a little beer to make sure it hasn’t gone off. When the oil is at full heat, carefully dip a floured fillet in the batter, holding it as little as possible, and slide into the oil. Wait a moment for the batter to set then dip another piece of fillet and so on. Don’t crowd the pan. Carefully turn the fillets, treat them lightly, once and cook until the batter is golden all over. When the batter is light golden, the fish inside is cooked.
Remove the fish and put them on greaseproof paper. That’s the posh way – I put them on newspaper, which absorbs excess oil nicely.
Put in the chips, cooking them at high heat until they, too, are golden brown. Let the chips drain, out them on greaseproof paper or newspapers to absorb excess oil, then serve with the fish.
If you want to be posh, you can garnish with lemon slices BUT, and here’s the awkward bit – the vinegar is critical. Yes, vinegar. To be fish and chips they must be served with malt vinegar, not mayonnaise, tartar sauce or anything else. To truly hit the spot the only malt vinegar to use is Sarsons. It’s hard to find in the Philippines but it can be found, even if you have to sell your grandmother into servitude you’ll find it a fair exchange.