The Hyper-Regional Chippy Traditions of Britain and Ireland
Orange chips, Spice bags, Bolognese chips, and the Justin Bieber Haggis Supper
In the Inception of regional fish and chips, the first level is the fish and chips itself ─ fishing patterns and taste tends to carve the UK and Ireland into cod and haddock, with skate and rock perhaps more common in the south than the north. Chips are differentiated by the type of cooking fat; beef dripping traditionally, especially in the north, while the south, particularly London, prefers a blonder chip, perhaps the influence of Cypriots who stewarded the national dish and brought a fresher, Mediterranean frying style. Go down a level and you have condiments: the south doesn’t understand wetness and is content with mayo and ketchup, but in Wales and the North you have lineages of gravy and curry sauce, with vinegary brown sauce the condiment of choice in Scotland. Then the third level is the fish substitutes: sausage in batters, saveloys, smokies, puddings and pies. You can define whole swathes of countries by whether they know what scraps or a potato scallop is. Linguistically too ─ fish and chips or fish suppers; chippies, chip shops or chippers, these are all broadly regional variants that each of us insist is the correct version.
However, that’s not what today’s newsletter about. The level I’m interested in are further down; traditions that are specific to a county, or to a city, or to a part of a city, or perhaps even to a single chip shop, regional traditions that sometimes we don’t even realise are regional traditions until we leave our homes and can’t find them, or until we live in another city and realise what we’ve been missing. Like other national dishes ─ ramen, pho, pizza, barbecue ─ fish and chips is hyper-regional ─ the fact that it’s just different things deep fried in batter doesn’t change this. Each dish is local history on a polystyrene tray (even if that history is someone working out the cheapest and most economical way to feed lots of drunk students on a night out).
Today’s newsletter is a bit different in format. I commissioned a writer in each city to provide a short story, but soon realised what I had was way too long for a newsletter. So you’re receiving the abridged version with 10 writers. If you have time to read the whole 19 city version, please click below:
Bolognese chips ─ Newcastle, by Annie Lord
On some nights, when there’s a big hole opening up wide and furious in your stomach you need to fill lit with what it needs. When I’m in London this means a chicken shish with extra garlic sauce; as a student in Newcastle, this meant Bolognese chips.
Greasy and meaty, Bolognese chips involves one layer of thick-cut chips, a layer of cheese, a layer of Bolognese sauce, and then a final layer of cheese, all heated up in the microwave for thirty seconds. You tend to notice flavours more when they’re paired with something they shouldn’t go with. In this case: potato where there should be pasta, meat sauce where there should be ketchup. Set in a new context, the flavours of Bolognese chips get down on their knees and crawl down to deeper levels. Afterwards you feel heavy. Comatose. When you get up to leave you have to bend over to make extra space for the meal to sit in your stomach.
After my first year of university I headed back to my parent’s house in Leeds . I was on a smoke-filled dancefloor listening to a dubstep remix of Adele's Set Fire to the Rain when I felt the big hole opening up in me again, growling for a fatberg-sized mound of carbs. I ended up following my friends into the golden arches. Each burger was too light and airy in my mouth, it felt like cloud food. I missed Bolognese chips. The thickness as it sank down my throat, puddled at the bottom of my gut, making me wonder when might be a good time to tell the taxi driver that he’s going to have to pull over because I’m about to throw up.
the author after 1 (one) Bolognese chips
Pastie supper ─ Belfast, by James Unson
A pastie, not to be confused with a Cornish pasty, is meat, potatoes, herbs and spices shaped into a patty then battered and fried. Often with the addition of pink colouring which turns the meat the colour of a packet of Prawn Cocktail crisps. Essentially a croquette disguised as a monstrosity. Like many other Northern Irish dishes (boxty, jambon, fifteens), they are a phenomenon, and therefore entirely unknown in the rest of the UK.
The first time I ordered a pastie supper ─ a pastie with chips ─ I was 13 and got it because I didn’t have enough change for anything more expensive. I was guided by a confidant to always add extra salt and vinegar on the pastie to cut through the unctuousness. I slowly grew fond of pastie; as a Filipino, I was brought up eating hot dogs and spam and this mysterious looking meat-thing fooled me, or at least reminded of my go to meals at home: Filipino frankfurters and embutido. This dual culinary heritage unraveled a cultural bridge for me. It made me feel at home. Or maybe it was just the extra vinegar?
photo credit https://twitter.com/BelfastBooks
Salt and Pepper Everything ─ Liverpool, by Gabrielle de la Puente
I just got off my Monday night Houseparty with the cousins which we’ve been having every week since lockdown began and I mentioned that I’d been asked to write about Liverpool’s ‘salt and pepper chips tradition’ but that… “I didn’t know we had one?”. They blew up. “We are in the golden triangle of Chinese chippies, how did you not know this?”
God bless me for thinking everyone has it this good. Liverpool has the oldest Chinese community in Europe and I have just grown up with these hybrid Scouse-Chinese dishes, never deeping my luck. Salt and pepper ribs and chicken wings came first, but customers wanted it with chips as well and eventually the constant requests made it onto the menu of takeaways and restaurants alike. Around my Nan’s in L8 alone has Kevins, the Lucky Star, Chius, KKs, Lee’s, Leung Sang, Ringo’s, Hang Fung; and more and more for days. It’s food on full volume, and Kevin - whoever he is - can have my hand in marriage because of the inexplicable little brown balls of garlic mixed through the menu that make me want to cry.
Salt and pepper is a category in itself now, so you can get the magic treatment on anything. I took salt and pepper sui mai to my Nan in the hospital once. We eat lightly crisped and sweetened salt and pepper chicken wings at family parties, but it’s on ribs, fish, bean curd, whatever. Honestly, it just makes everything in the world taste better.
photo by Jonathan Nunn, who would like to point out you can get salt and pepper chips at Tasty House and Lucky Dog in south London
Deep Fried Mars Bar ─ Stonehaven, by Richard Scott
The story of the deep-fried Mars bar began in 1992, in a small town near Aberdeen called Stonehaven, with one teenager daring another to go into local fish bar The Haven and request the chocolate bar be battered and fried. Three years later, and Keith Chegwin was eating the dish live on The Big Breakfast.
Nearly three decades in, and hundreds are still sold weekly, all but one of the town’s four chip shops listing it on their menu. There’s been a failed attempt at gaining EU protected food name status, and a failed attempt by Aberdeenshire council to remove a banner advertising it in the town centre, it apparently being “detrimental” to Stonehaven’s image. In 2015, long after he dreamt the thing up as a schoolboy, Jon Davie admitted he’d never eaten a deep-fried Mars bar, and didn’t think he ever would. Name me another foodstuff whose creator hasn’t tried it and doesn’t want to?
The story of the deep-fried Mars bar is one of schoolchildren, drunk locals and tourists continuing a lineage of dares. It is often conflated with the infamous Glasgow effect health theory, Glasgow being a city who have stolen the dish and proclaimed it their own with some success, at one point even putting one into a calzone.
Raised in Stonehaven, I actively avoid going anywhere near a certain chip shop by Glasgow Central Station which is especially vocal in its charlatanry, knowing my blood pressure will rise in its vicinity. This is the paradox of the deep-fried Mars Bar – I sort of hate it, but like most locals am on the defensive as soon as the central belt cities or worst of all, Dundee, are mentioned in the same breath. Tribalism all for a food which nobody particularly wants to eat.
The Justin Bieber Haggis Special ─ Glasgow, by Steven Young
Much as an ancient king of Babylon (Ezekiel 21:21) sought to discern the truth in liver, the world around us can still be read in offal – near enough any historic recipe is an account not just of what to put on a plate, but an account of the land around it; the spices available, the animals being farmed. The need to use every bit of the animal is the need of families to survive. The haggis chip supper is a story of Glasgow.
In 2016, the Blue Lagoon ripped up history and renamed it the Justin Bieber Haggis Special ─ presumably in perpetuity ─ in celebration of Justin Bieber’s post-Hydro tea. Four years on, the name if anything has only grown in resonance – standing in for the time when Justin Bieber touring internationally was not only legal, but posed only a minimal risk to public health.
The history the Justin Bieber Haggis Special speaks to is contested. For some, it demeans an important part of Scotland's heritage, coming up against the conviction that the traditional savoury pudding shouldn't need a pop-star to push it. It speaks to a curious lack of confidence in what should be the menu's heart, a refusal to let Scotland's culinary heritage stand on its own.
The Justin Bieber Haggis Special sounds another warning - of the fallibility of local memory, of traditions that - once probed - collapse faster than a Soufflé Diana: the CCTV quite clearly shows Justin ordering, and tucking into, battered haddock. Maybe he had his security detail pick it up a second portion incognito? It seems more likely that Blue Lagoon instead identified that the 'Justin Bieber Battered Haddock' didn't have much of a ring to it. I think it speaks to a sense of ownership: battered haggis and chips is Glasgow's to do with what it will, and if that's giving it a bizarrely long-lived semi-ironic name, so be it.
The Justin Bieber Haggis Special may be a lie, but this is Glasgow; when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
Imli Chips ─ Rochdale, by Yasmin Jaunbocus
There were two chippies in Royton, with queues snaking around them almost every day. However, neither of these two chippies were the ones my family frequented. Instead, we would pile into our Toyota Corolla, and trundle past the rows of Victorian terraces and mill towers towards Rochdale. Rochdale has a significant Pakistani community, and travelling there for mum to stock up from the cash and carry with fresh coriander, mint and vegetables like chow chow, was as much of a weekly pilgrimage as Dad doing his Friday prayers at the mosque nearby.
The real salvation though, was the International Chippy. Here, the chips were fat: a mixture of crispy and soggy, pale gold bars of potato, lying squidged together in paper, and importantly, not cooked in beef dripping or lard so making them halal. The aroma of frying chips was accented with hints of spice from their other specialties like thick chicken pieces, sindoor red from the tandoori marinade and flaky white fish pulled through masala batter and fried. It was their imli chips however that ensured we travelled upwards of half an hour to eat.
The polystyrene tray would first have a layer of those chips before being doused in imli sauce. A mix of tangy tamarind, chilli and spice - water thin - to soak into the steaming chips. Then shredded cabbage, lettuce, cucumber, carrot, onion: the colours bleeding into each other but more importantly, they provided texture contrast from the crispy mash of chip and crunch and freshness against the partnered imli. Finally, a cooling mint yoghurt, creamy and rich against the other textures and flavours. They’d essentially pani puri’d the English chippy.
The Spice Bag ─ Dublin, by Sarah Doorley
My sisters started dropping spice bags into conversation a few years ago, after they had moved into a flat together in Dublin. I had been away from home since before the bags’ invention at a Chinese takeaway called Sunflower in Templeogue, but was still embarrassed to have to ask what they were talking about – it only gave away how I grasp after my own Irish-ness these days.
A spice bag (or mála spíosrach if you’re ordering as gaelige) is a mixture of chips, stir fried onions, peppers, Sichuan peppercorns and chilli, and bits of fried chicken all dusted with a mystery salty, spicy mix and served in a bag. First appearing in 2012, they were the go to late night order in Dublin within a couple of years and have since been declared Ireland’s favourite takeaway order by JustEat in 2018 and 2019 (2020 is yet to be announced). I can’t pretend to understand how they caught the national imagination, all I know is there is apparently universal agreement that they are very, very tasty.
Before I wrote this I sent my little sister some annoying questions. Like, are spice bags better from a Chinese takeaway or a chipper? I’m guessing from a takeaway, because chipper chips tend to be fatter and softer. I assume you want a good crisp chip so the spice mix can cling without melting. She puts me off until she has time to think; I’m impatient, and hungry. I’ll have to wait until the travel quarantine is lifted so I can go home and she can take me out to try one for myself.
Trí mhalaí spíosrach, le do thoil. Go raibh maith agat.
photo credit Roberta Doorley
Chips, cheese, gravy/curry and rissole ─ Cardiff, by Angela Hui
If chips, cheese and curry or gravy sauce is a Cardiff delicacy, Caroline Street (aka Chippy Lane or Chippy Alley) is its spiritual home, a deep-fried beige Mecca with a bountiful choice of fast-food offerings from fish and chip shops to kebab shops, and even a mafia-run steakhouse that stays open until 4am. It’s become so famous, in fact, it’s the Old Kent Road equivalent on the Cardiff edition of Monopoly.
Every night on Chippy Alley, hand-cut chips with plasticky shredded cheese are topped with either hot curry or gravy sauce, and as the cheese melts it coagulates into a homogenous stodgy unit. Precariously perched on top of blob mountain is a golden rissole. Italians settled in South Wales in the 18th century and brought a whole host of very welcome culinary delights, one of them being rissoles. A deep-fried orb made up of mashed potato, diced onion, thyme and corned beef rolled into a ball and coated in luminous bright orange breadcrumbs. It’s no secret that the Welsh love corned beef, so much so that there’s even an ongoing campaign for it to be the Welsh national dish.
Let’s be honest though, no one actually eats anything from this strip of takeaways sober and the quality is questionable.
Editor’s note: I have eaten from Chippy Alley stone cold sober and would do it again
Chippy Alley is a black hole for the inebriated. It has an inexplicable gravitational pull sucking everything towards it at the end of a night; a place where all walks of life come together in drunken unison. Whether you’re a hen, stag, student, rugby lad, tourist or passerby, everyone sets aside their differences whilst someone bursts into song singing the Welsh national anthem. A night ending in Chippy Alley is simply a sign of a good night out.
Orange Chips ─ The Black Country, by Rose Dymock
The borders of the Black Country are pretty fluid, depending on who you ask.
Whether they are convinced that Wolverhampton has no right to claim Black Country heritage, or are sure that Walsall counts as a part of this relatively unknown region, there is pretty much one thing that will unite everyone who calls this part of the country home: orange chips.
Orange, or battered, chips are a staple of almost every chip shop in the area. Take your normal chunky chip shop chips, cover them in thick, orange batter and deep fry them to perfection. What gives them this luminous, distinctive colour is usually a closely guarded secret, passed down from generation to generation, but it’s generally accepted that it’s either turmeric or paprika.
Much like the Black Country (Yam Yam) dialect, and the scallop line battered chips are hyper-specific in their locality – you won’t get them in a Birmingham chip shop, despite how close and similar these areas might seem to an outsider. People are proud to be part of the Black Country – and definitely not Brummies – and orange chips are our own special delicacy. They might not be fancy, or even very pretty, but once you’ve had them you’ll never want to go back to the pale, non-battered variety.
Smack barm pey wet ─ The Internet, by Tom Whyman
There is a utopian promise in those much-memed words, ‘smack barm pey wet’. For the Americans who ridiculed that viral video of the man from Joe eating a ‘Wigan kebab’, ‘smack barm pey wet’ was hilarious on the basis that they assumed all the food everywhere in England was like this. “Oi guvnor I’m just taking me lorry to Tesco to nick a smack barm pey wet.”
But for a British person, especially one like me who has never tried it, they speak of a beautiful possibility: that in fact, things both can be, and are still, different. That in one of the most centralised, homogenised nations in the world, there can still exist in places like chip shops something like a genuine regional culinary diversity – that this is still permitted. Items that people local to the area might take for granted, like they’re just something you’d get in any chip shop, anywhere, but which people arriving from outside, gazing up at the menu on which nothing beyond the prices is explained, might in some instances have no idea what they were getting. Items with names like ‘pattie’, or ‘smokey’, or ‘scraps’. Parmos, pease pudding, or the practise of putting Bolognese sauce on chips. Simply stuffing a pie in a bap. Like all great food, the things that make a place, a place.
All contributors to this article were paid or waived their fee
Annie Lord is a writer based in London. Her work has appeared in the The New Statesman, The Independent and Vice, and she is a columnist at Vogue.
James Unson is a Filipino chef raised in Northern Ireland and currently based in London.
Gabrielle de la Puente is a writer based in Liverpool and the co-founder of The White Pube. Her fee was matched by Vittles and donated to food banks in Liverpool and London https://www.paypal.com/pools/c/8tGGvCdk6H
Richard Scott is from Stonehaven and has been London-based, working in food since 2012. He’s mainly (only?) interested in Aberdeen Football Club, his cat, lager shandies and fried food.
Steven Young is a writer and editor based in Leith.
Yasmin Jaunbocus is a food, drink & restaurant PR based in London.
Sarah Doorley works for a creative agency in Edinburgh. This is her first published piece of writing but she would like to write more. You can find her on Instagram: @sarahdoorley. Sarah’s fee was donated to the Irish Refugee Council https://www.irishrefugeecouncil.ie/donate/donate/5/credit-card
Angela Hui is a freelance journalist, writer, and editor. Her work has appeared in Eater London, Huffington Post, Independent, Time Out, Vice, among other publications.
Rose Dymock is a film and culture writer originally from the Black Country. Her interests are multilingual cinema, feminism and thrillers. You can find more of her work at rosedymock.contently.com and follow her on Twitter @rosedymock.
Tom Whyman is a writer and philosopher who lives in the north east of England.