Sunday 18 July 2010

Fish and chips – reflections of a vegetarian

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!

Shark Paradise
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

Shark Paradise
78 Smith St, Collingwood VIC 3066, (03) 9486 0609
(Apparently Shark Paradise has now closed)


  1. Hi I follow your blog with interest, I am vegetarian and Scottish (Edinburgh) so I loved your blogs about your holiday in Edinburgh. I too used to love a fish supper but usually make do with just chips now. Recently in a cafe I ordered veggie fish and chips which turned out to be deep fried battered slices of halloumi. It was gorgeous! I didn't spoil the moment by thinking about the calories or fat intake I just enjoyed it.

  2. What fun sounding places all! Chips seem to say different things to different locations. Still I haven't found a chip anywhere I didn't like but then I'm really a push over for potatoes.
    Love that word ... chippocrite!

  3. Fish and chips meant moving day for us when we were little. My dad would buy a portion for each of the removal man, and some for us, too. Ah, childhood memories :) We still call them fish and chips too, though neither of us buys fish when we indulge nowadays!

  4. Lovely post - really took me back to long days on the beach followed by a huge serve of hot, oily, salty, fatty food. I never liked meat, so always had just chips, potato cakes (occasionally pineapple, banana or pumpkin fritters, if they were available), corn jacks and the all important pickled onion. But I haven't eaten it in years, because my partner doesn't like it and yeah, to see THAT much deep fried starch as an adult is a bit off-putting. But the smell still makes me feel nine years old, wearing wet bathers under my clothes, dousing my bounty in endless packets of squeezy sauce and grabbing that first, way-too-hot-but irresistible first chip, exactly as you described.

    We just moved to the States, which I figured would be the final nail in the coffin of my ever eating this stuff again, but there's actually a food cart near my work run by a Scottish guy selling British fish and chips (which also means sausage supper and curry sauce). I tried some and really realised how unique it is from other fried foods -- the distinctive doughy batter really is like nothing else.

    I also had the pleasure of introducing my workmates to deep fried Mars bars. They deep fry a lot of other things here -- Oreos, fruit pies, they'll even RE-deep fry a donut to make it a fritter -- but again, it's the fish 'n chip batter that makes it special.

    I think it's kind of the Commonwealth's version of soul/comfort food. People here get excited whne they find "proper" southern fried chicken, corn bread, deep fried okra, collard greens and "slaw". I imagine it's the same childhood attachment.

  5. Oh I can almost taste the potato cakes. Such a perfect description of the whole ritual! I've tried to explain to my Scottish husband how a trip to the chippie really should be; will have to show him this :)

  6. oooh I love this post! I actually worked in a Fish n Chip shop from age 13 to 17! "Traditionally the fish and chip shop could be identified by the faded chiko roll advertisement, a kitsch clock and bottles of sauce and vinegar" >> Too true!!!

  7. Johanna, I'm now craving fish and chips at 10:29am in the morning! Ahh yes nothing like fish and chips from a takeaway store. I think we only had the newspaper wrapped chips once!

  8. Actually dim sims aren't really chinese. An Australian chinese man started them here. I only know because Toby hated seeing it in Chinese restaurants when he first arrived.

  9. This gave me such a sense of nostalgia! When I ate animal, I was never a big fan of fish, but give me a piece of flake and some calamari, and I was in heaven! I was just thinking the other day how I'm craving something in batter and served in newspaper! I'm not the biggest fan of Tempeh either, but I think its a great substitute for this kind of thing.

    Love the little comment about the minimum serve of chips. As a family of 5 when we were younger, we'd always order $6 worth of chips. It sounds so funny and speicific now that I think about it ;)

  10. I know dust and sand aren't quite the same, but I feel there's something very stereotypically "Aussie" about the mad rush to cover your fish'n'chips from the sand when you're eating on the beach and a gust of wind came along! I never had fish'n'chips much growing up, unless we were at the coast, but I remember getting potato scallops from the shop near the bus interchange in high school. So your post brought up some lovely memories, even though I woudln't really want any of it nowadays!

    P.S. I'm definitely a vinegar on chips rather than sauce girl. So sue me. :D

  11. I love fish and chips now, but as a kid, fish was a second best option - we used to hate the bnones and be scared of it. These fish and chips all look fab. I laughed at the Chokitos - I was thinking about those only yesterday and looked them up on Chocoblog, as I thought they had been made extinct.

  12. What a wonderful post, Johanna! Totally enjoyed your memories and the collection of current fish-and-chips options in Melbourne. Foot rituals bring so much joy - your post somehow made those experiences accessible and understand-able.

  13. I had the $5 for 4 Vegan Dim Sim at Shark.
    It is not very Dim Sim-ish.
    More like springroll filling in dumpling wrapper.
    I will need to go back for tempeh and other veg*n stuff.

  14. Have you ever had a craving for something you've never had before? Case in point. I've never had fish and chips. Now. After reading this post. I am going to scour Manhattan for some good fish and chips. Because a serious craving has HIT.

  15. Hi Marie - welcome - battered haloumi sounds wonderful - I would love to try it - the only way to enjoy fish and chips is to avoid any thoughts of calories and good health :-)

    Thanks Tanna - I can be particular about chips but I love most of them - deep frying and potatoes are just made for each other!

    Thanks Lysy - glad I am not the only vegetarian to refuse to give up terms that have nothing to do with what I eat nowadays - love the chips for the removal men - how kind of your dad!

    Thanks Ruth - your memories are great - and I am impressed with how you had the meat/fish free meal down pat! How bizarre to move halfway across the world and have fish and chips so close by - I remember encountering chip shop curry sauce in the UK and finding it a weird idea - so was deep fried mars bars but who could resist that one - I guess we all seek our childhood memories in a meal every now and again

    Thanks Shauna - I understand about Scottish husbands not understanding fish and chips - I think if E had them in his heart like I do we might search a bit harder - thought probably better for my health that we don't

    Thanks Lisa - sounds like hard work - I always felt sorry for the people working in the fish and chip shop in summer when we got fish and chips because it was too hot to cook - though the leftovers would be great

    Thanks Lorraine - I understand only too well, every time I look at these photos I suddenly really want a potato cake

    Thanks Kristy - good to have that clarified - I guess that dim sims might come from some Australian notion of what Chinese food is but am sure there is much finer food in China - it is sort of like growing up with curry powder and then discovering all the spices used in India

    Thanks Christine - I remember having conversations about whether we really got our money's worth with a large order of chips or would be better off asking for a few smaller portions - important stuff!

    Thanks Hannah - I would prefer vinegar to sauce too - and I think that sand is so much a part of fish and chips - much nicer than dust in your chippies!

    Thanks Cakelaw - haven't had chokitos for ages but it was my favourite when I was little and have had a few lately for some strange reason but don't like the new packaging. Your comment on bones reminded me that I think we loved flake because it didn't have bones

    Thanks Smita - food rituals are an important way to connect with others and our past - as I think the comments here show

    Thanks Toby - the dim sims weren't as good as the monash uni ones - wish there were still there and I could send you to clayton to try them - but I liked the idea of the veg pack at Shark which had the dim sims, the spring rolls, the soy nuggets and the tempeh

    Thanks Joanne - I wish I could send a paper wrapped parcel of fish and chips to you that would be steaming hot when you opened it so you could taste how good they are - good luck with finding fish and chips in manhattan - if ruth can find them in Portland then surely they must be in Manhattan too!

  16. I too had deep fried halloumi the other day and very nice it was too.

    I find that you need to know when to hit your fish and chip shop so you get freshly cooked chips piping hot from the deep fryer. I also appear to be one a one woman mission not to order cod from my local; they usually have the more sustainable haddock in the freezer but not always. They then have to listen to me talk about sustainability for 5 mins whilst my haddock cooks.

    I have a tradition of chip friday and have a portions of fish and chip shop chips for my lunch most weeks.

  17. "Fish and chippocrite"--love it! And such interesting info about fish and chips. I bet dim sims is like dim sum over here (?). Looks like you've done quite a bit of research on the subject--hope you find that perfect veg fish & chips! I've never had proper fish & chips, but strangely enough, my Mum used to call them "chips" as well, even though everyone else called them "french fries" (and Mum wasn't British!). I ate fish sticks as a kid, which I loathed. Now I'm curious to try some of these alternatives.

  18. Thanks Helen - one nice thing about not eating fish is not having to worry about eating unethically in that area - I am not sure that flake is the best choice but it was all we ever had - your friday traditions sound very civilised :-)

    Thanks Ricki - I guess we got dim sim from dim sum but I think our dim sims are just one of the sorts of dumplings you might find in a dim sum selection. That is odd that your mum said chips but sounds quite right to me - I think that your fish sticks are like our fish fingers (just checked wikipedia) - we had them quite a bit and I did like them - maybe I liked the idea that fish had fingers :-)

  19. Wow dim sum in fish and chip shops - that sounds great. Nothing like that here in UK. However don't dicount our fish and chip shops altogether - yes you can get some awful ones with greasy soggy chips but the good ones are VERY good.

    I too always refer to having fish & chips even though I'm veggie and only ever eat the chips. You can't say one without the other :)

  20. Thanks Katie - Helen is right about timing with uk chippies. Maybe if I had found a good local chippie when I lived in the UK I would feel differently about them - sounds like you have found some good ones

  21. Anyone have a recipe?


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