Through my childhood, the main fast food that we had was fish and chips. I wasn’t quite old enough to have them wrapped in newspaper – health and safety regulations had already kicked in – but we were a good Catholic family who often ate fish on Fridays, and gave up meat altogether on Fridays in Lent.
As a child I didn’t always have fish - when it wasn't Lent. We usually had a choice of flake (in batter, of course), chiko roll or dim sims. I often had the fried or steamed dim sims. Always with chips and potato cakes. The latter are slices of potato dipped in batter and fried, also known in some other Australian states as scallops. The fish and chips shops also usually sold other types of fish, a burger with the lot, steak sandwich, sav in batter, calimari and onion rings, but these were less frequent in our orders. No matter what was ordered, we always just called it fish and chips or fish’n’chips. I still talk about having fish and chips today though I am no pescitarian, vegaquarian or fish-and-chippocrite (a term learnt from a friend of mine who ate fish but no other flesh).
Fish and chips are integral in the memories of my childhood. When we were camping in our friend’s paddock as young 10 year olds we organized for her mum to buy us fish and chips and we were upset when the wind not only blew in our tent but blew dust over the remains of the fish and chips. On hot summer nights my family would go to Lorne for fish and chips by the beach after a cooling swim. On our last night in my childhood house (I lived there till I was 15) we sat on the floor of the empty lounge room and ate fish and chips.
It was a meal for relaxing. My mum wrote our orders on a piece of paper and rang it through to the fish and chip shop so it was ready to pick up when she arrived. When the package arrived at home, the smell was wonderful. Our little hands would sneak in for a chip so hot we could barely hold it. We had cane baskets specially for these evenings. My mum would rip off pieces of the paper that the fish and chips were wrapped in. She would use this to line the baskets and dole out the fish, chicko rolls and dim sims according to her list, give us a potato cake each and lastly she would divide up the chips. At the end of the meal the paper went in the bin, the baskets in the cupboard and there were no dishes.
When I talk about fish and chips shops I mean the ones where you see them made fresh before your eyes. Where you see the piles of potatoes cut into chips, placed in wire baskets that were lowered into vats of hot oil for frying and then balanced above the oil to drain before being tipped onto white paper, doused in salt from a large metal shaker and then wrapped in a parcel. Not kept hot in a bain marie at a food mall or served with salad in a pub.
Traditionally the fish and chip shop could be identified by the faded chiko roll advertisement, a kitsch clock and bottles of sauce and vinegar. (I was once told in a greasy spoon that all women love sauce on their chips but if that is so then I am the exception that proves the rule.) The shops were uncomfortably hot on a summer’s day and welcomingly warm in winter. These days they tend to be a bit cleaner and brighter than in my memory but are still dominated by piles of chips and chip baskets above the vats of hot oil that steam up the windows on a cold day.
We had fish and chips so often that I was surprised when I was older to find that they were particular to my part of the world. I never had heard of French fries until the Golden Arches hit our shores. They always seemed so stingy. Ours were generous chips, crisp on the outside and soft and fluffy inside. The paper-wrapped parcel warmed us on a cold night and steamed when we opened it. The fish and chips were freshly cooked, not the lukewarm, soggy chips that I encountered with disappointment in the UK chippie.
As an adult, I was also surprised to find that dim sims come from Chinese and flake is actually shark. In the UK they call fish and chips a ‘fish supper’. E thought it hilarious that he was eating a shark supper when he first visited Australia.
The other aspect of Australian fish and chips that is worth a mention is that concept of Minimum Chips. In the UK chippies and some more modern fish and chips shop you get a bag of chips, a box of chips, a small chips or a large chips. Our fish and chips shops have always had a price for minimum chips. This is the least amount of chips you can order. (For example at Millers, minimum chips costs $3.) E and I always find this is a generous serve for the two of us. When my family orders chips, my mum decides on the amount we want to buy – it might be $6 of chips.
I don’t have fish and chips very often any more. Too much deep frying, stodge and salt. My brothers used to call it a grease and oil change. And not all fish and chips shops cook in vegetable oil. One of my main problems, however, is finding a protein alternative that is vegetarian but allows me to have the nostalgic fish and chip experience. So this year I have done some research, in Melbourne’s inner north.
Flakes on Sydney Road
We got the brochure in our post box and they offer home delivery. I decided to try the burger and chips option. Burger with the lot is an Aussie tradition down at the fish and chip shop usually comprising beef burger, tomato, lettuce, cheese, beetroot, fried egg and tomato sauce on a bread roll. The vegie patties that take the place of meat burgers in a fish and chip shop seem to be more about mashed potato than protein. Mine was nice, but not overwhelmed by vegetables. It was a nice meal but seemed to lack the rituals that I associate with fish and ships.
Millers Fish and Chips This was discovered through a recommendation from a friend. It is probably the closest I have found to a traditional fish and chip shop. Just a short drive away, I placed my order and waited with other hungry punters. It had the traditional wire baskets of chips, sachets of tomato sauce and tartare sauce, fridge of drinks and flashing lights outside. The shopping strip where it is located felt mostly deserted and well-lit Millers was like a beacon in a dark suburban night.
The chips were honest, golden and crisp. The potato cakes had a craggy exterior that was a little chewy, a little crunchy as they should be. I also ordered corn jacks, which I enjoyed. They have the pleasingly chewy wrapper of chiko rolls and a creamy corny exterior. They don’t give enough extra vegetable or protein but yet they taste so good that they satisfy. But I would like to try the burger to see if it leaves me feeling less heavy. We had this meal just after feeling ill and needing a good dose of junk food - fizzy drink and chocolate bars included!
I remembered this place from when we lived in Collingwood. It had more of an inner city vibe that caters for vegetarians. Unfortunately, walking past all the cosy cafes in Smith Street, a fish and chip shop feels a little cold and shabby. But it does live up to my memory of some fine vegetarian options. I chose the tempeh in batter and vegetarian dim sims, as well as the chips and potato cake.
The tempeh in batter probably fulfils my need for decent protein but I am a little ambivalent about tempeh. The dim sims are not quite like those we would order as kids but they were delicious with a chewy fried skin and lots of veggies inside, seeming to be mostly cabbage. Unfortunately, with a longer drive home from Shark Paradise, the food was not steaming hot by the time we got home, which was good for Sylvia who loved the chips but not so good for E and me. If it was closer to home, I would probably go there more but lukewarm fish and chips are not such an agreeable option.
Other placesThe above places are merely my recent tastes of fish and chips. I have visited many more over the years. I love eating them by the beach, though I remember one place in Lorne that put so much salt on our chips that we were gasping for water for hours. I don’t tend to go to trendy modern fish and chip shops that have branched into foods like sushi (for example Sea Salt in Lygon Street down near Elgin Street in Carlton). And shops that specialize in chips such as Lord of the Fries, don’t quite seem to fit the bill either (though I do enjoy their chips).
I have a soft spot for Barwon Fish and Chips in High Street, Belmont that has served our family many fish and chips. The best vegetarian substitute I ever found were the vegetarian dim sims at Monash University student cafe, but they seem to have disappeared from the menu.
Much of the writing on fish and chips such as this article in The Age focuses on the best fish, but I seek the perfect vegetarian "fish and chips" - with no mock fish involved, mind you. If I could find a fish and chip shop that sold the Monash Uni dim sims, I might reach my fish and chip nirvana. Meanwhile, I will still enjoy something close to it every once in a while.
Flakes on Sydney Road
726 Sydney Road, Brunswick, (03) 9383 6900
Millers Fish & Chips
131 Miller St, Thornbury VIC 3071 (03) 9480 2098
78 Smith St, Collingwood VIC 3066, (03) 9486 0609
(Apparently Shark Paradise has now closed)
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