Fish and chips is the quintessential Australian dish, involving a battered fish fillet, and a side of thinly sliced, deep-fried potatoes, all topped with vinegar. It’s the perfect combination of protein, fats, vitamins and carbohydrates, especially if you’re not worried about your arteries.
The dish hailed originally from the slums of London. Poor English immigrants who landed here were delighted to find plenty of tasty seafood ready to coat in batter, and long miles of sparkling white beach to eat it on. It’s practical cuisine, because vinegar turned out to be the only thing that could soothe jellyfish stings, one of the hazards of swimming in tropical waters. So you could have a swim and then race to the beach, to give yourself first aid with the remains of your lunch.
Since then, fish and chips has evolved. Brian O’Hearne, from Bottom of the Harbour Seafoods suggests you explore your fish options before you place your order. “Blue-eyed cod is the tourists’ favourite,” he says. “And ocean perch.”
But he doesn’t recommend either of them, saying he believes tourists from the northern hemisphere buy them because the names sound familiar. “They’re deep water fish being fished to extinction.”
Instead try flathead, bream and the great Australian delicacy, barramundi. “Wild barramundi is a medium strong, gamey fish,” says O’Hearne. In small fish and chips shops you’ll be offered hake, a cheaper white fish that’s well textured.
Once you’ve chosen your fish, you need to decide whether you prefer deep-fried, lightly battered or grilled. A man with strong opinions on the subject is George Costi, one of Australia’s most respected fishmongers.
“Deep fried tastes better,” he says. Costi laments the move by the health conscious to grilled fish, saying there’s not much point in fish and chips if there’s no batter. He’s got issues with chips, too. “You need a good size,” he says. “Scungy, thin chips are useless.”
And what about the vinegar? It’s not used as much these days, though most places will give leave a bottle of vinegar out for anybody who wants it. Lemon is now the preferred way of adding an acid zing. Also disappearing is the practice of wrapping fish and chips in paper. These days you’ll find your takeaway meal boxed in polite white containers. This has led to a rumour that fish and chip merchants are trying to save money, because you get fewer chips in a box. Not so, says O’Hearne. “When you use paper everything keeps steaming,” he says. “Why would you want soggy chips?”
So now you’re a fish and chips expert, all you need to know is where to catch them.
There is no better place to start than the Sydney Fish Markets, the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere. It’s a working port, so you can watch the catch come in if you get up early enough. It’s also a wholesale fish market, with food outlets and even boasts a seafood cooking school. And, it has to be said, an authentic smell of fish. If that’s too hard core, there are plenty of other choices, from tiny takeaway joints to superb, harbourside restaurants.
You’ll know a takeaway when you see it by its cramped interior, tiled walls and sign saying ‘Best Fish and Chips in the World’. For some reason, they nearly all have them. The fact that a place is small is no reflection on its quality: Mohr Fish in Surry Hills, for example, is virtually a hole in the wall, but it’s famed for its crispy batter and melt-in-the-mouth fish. Excellent takeaways line all the major beaches. Then there’s Ocean Fish in inner city Drummoyne, where you’ll find people queuing for a chance to bite at the fish.
Sydney is one of the world’s great food destinations, where a wide range of fresh foods meets inventive culinary skills. Almost anywhere you go you can expect to dine well, at a cost that’s low in world terms. But for those determined to tantalise the tastebuds, Sydney offers restaurants that can turn a humble piece of fish into an experience you’ll tell your grandchildren about. There’s the tiny, flat-as-a-fillet eatery Fish Face in trendy Darlinghurst, or the very expensive Pier in the posh waterside suburb of Rose Bay.
And that’s before you’ve even begun to explore the other seafood dishes that Sydney offers, from freshly shucked rock oysters to the crustaceans known locally as Balmain Bugs. But for this fish and chip tragic at least, the best experience of all is to be found at night, down at Bronte Beach. The Fishy Bite takeaway doesn’t offer the best meal in the world, it has to be said. But it’s a short walk to the beach, which is almost always deserted at night. You can sprawl on the sand and watch the moon rise over the sea. And at night there are no seagulls to pinch your chips, either.
Places to enjoy
A Fish Called Paddo
239 Glenmore Road
(02) 9326 9500
Lively and tasty.
Bottom of the Harbour Seafoods
21 The Esplanade
(02) 9969 7911
Luscious fish that you can take away and eat on the beach.
132 Darlinghurst Road
(02) 9332 4803
Tiny place but superb food. Takeaway or eat in.
Go Fish Café
286 Campbell Parade,
(02) 9300 0077
Eat your fish and chips while enjoying a glorious beach view.
Manly Fish Market & Café
(02) 9976 3777
Minutes from the beach.
202 Devonshire Street
Surry Hills NSW
(02) 9318 1326
A Sydney institution.
154 Lyons Road
(02) 9181 4336
People line up for a chance to eat the battered barramundi.
Sydney Fish Markets
Wholesale fish, a seafood cooking school, and fish as far as the eye can see. What more could you ask?
This article first appeared in Where magazine.