All about ‘fish & chips,’ the classic British take-out meal

Flaky white fish, golden batter, and a mound of fries in newsprint

Today's expression: Sentimental value
Explore more: Lesson #604
September 4, 2023:

"Fish and chips" is the classic British comfort food: sold in to-go stands and fine dining restaurants alike, it's a combination of fried white fish and French fries (sprinkled with salt and lemon). It also works well in Jewish and Catholic diets.

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Today we’re talking about fish and chips, the classic English comfort food

Lesson summary

Hi there everyone, I’m Jeff and this is lesson 604 of Plain English. JR is the producer and he has uploaded the full lesson content to PlainEnglish.com/604. That full lesson includes the transcripts of today’s episode, a special step-by-step video walkthrough, translations, the fast version of the audio, exercises, and more. PlainEnglish.com/604, thank you JR.

Today’s story is about fish and chips, the classic English comfort food. We’ll talk about what it is and we’ll explore a little of its history. In the second half of the lesson, I’ll show you how to use the English expression “sentimental value.” And we have a quote of the week. Ready? Let’s get going.

Fish and chips: England’s comfort food

Comfort food is food that has sentimental value; it gives you a sense of being at home. For many people, it reminds them of childhood dinners with family. Often , comfort food is shared among many people in a culture—and it’s rarely healthy. In the U.S., for example, macaroni and cheese would be considered comfort food. It’s something a lot of us eat as kids, it reminds us of home, it has good memories, and, no, it’s not healthy.

In England, a classic comfort food is fish and chips. “Chips” are what we in America call French fries. Fish and chips is fried fish and French-fried potatoes. They are often sold at dedicated “fish and chip shops” or “chippies” for short . Early chippies were take-out only; today , a lot of business is still to go, but many have restaurant-style seating as well.

The fish is usually cod or haddock. They are both white, flaky fish caught in the North Atlantic. The fish is deboned and filleted. It’s battered in a little water and flour, and then deep fried in vegetable oil. It’s common to squirt some lemon and sprinkle some salt on top.

In England, fish and chips is served with tartar sauce, a creamy white sauce with a little bit of bite. In other parts of the U.K. and around the world, you might find different sauces. In Scotland, for example, they have their fish and chips with a brown, vinegar-based sauce.

The earliest known fish and chip shops opened in the 1860s, but the combination was definitely in use earlier than that. Cookbooks and even a Charles Dickens novel refer to fried fish and fried potatoes going together even before specialty fish and chip stands opened.

At the beginning, fish and chips was considered a working-class meal. It was a meal that blue-collar workers could get on the cheap before or after a shift; it wasn’t for Sunday dinner with the family. Early chip shops served the dish to go, wrapped in discarded newspaper. That doesn’t meet modern food safety standards—think about the ink!—but it’s still common to be served to go in waxed paper or cardboard.

During World War II, a lot of food in England was rationed. Bacon, butter, tea, meat, milk, cereal, cheese—all rationed. Shoppers exchanged a limited number of coupons for the food they wanted to buy. But fish and chips was one of the few things that was not rationed during the war. Winston Churchill, prime minister at the time, called fish and chips “the good companions.”

Today, though, fish and chips is for all England. You can still find them at cheap take-away stands wrapped in paper, or you can buy them at upscale restaurants in England and around the world. At the peak of its popularity, there were 35,000 fish and chip shops in the U.K.; that has fallen to about 10,000 now. But that’s still a lot.

Fish and chips has a religious origin. Historians think the combination originated in the Jewish community of Portugal. In the kosher tradition, dairy and meat cannot be mixed, so fish and chips was considered a flexible option, because it let you serve dairy in the same meal.

The dish also worked nicely with the longstanding Catholic tradition of not eating meat on Fridays: Catholics often substitute fish for meat on Fridays. Still today, fish and chips is a popular family meal on Friday nights in England, even among those who are more secular or otherwise do eat meat on Fridays.


I loved fish and chips! I was in London for a semester in college, just three months. And these fish and chip shops were so good. The fish is served piping-hot. And it’s surrounded by a mound of French fries.

They don’t serve them in real newspaper anymore, but they’ll often serve them in paper that’s made to look like newspaper, just for old times’ sake. And they would fold up the paper in a cone, so the fish would go in vertically, surrounded by fries. Sprinkle some lemon and salt on top…to die for!

You can definitely get it in a restaurant, if your town or city has a British pub or British restaurant, fish and chips will be on the menu. But it’s not the same sitting down as standing up.

Quote of the Week

Here’s today’s quote; it’s from the chef, author, and TV host Julia Child. She said, “The only time to eat diet food is while you are waiting for the steak to cook.”

Julia Child brought French-style cooking to American audiences and she was well-known for not skimping on the butter. And she says: “The only time to eat diet food is while you are waiting for the steak to cook.”

I don’t know if those are words to live by, but it’s a funny quote nonetheless on this fish and chips Monday.

Well next up, we’re going to talk about the expression “sentimental value.”

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Expression: Sentimental value