Fish and chips

Christmas Eve. The pudding is steaming on the stove, tomorrow’s turkey is trussed, mince pies are cooling on the rack, champagne on ice.

“OK, kids, what would you like for dinner?”

“Fish and chips!”

Of course they do. Why ask?

So off I ride into the sunset, in search of fish and chips. It soon turns out every fish and chip shop in the city is closed tonight, and we end up with pizza, and the next night, Christmas Night, and every evening for the next week, we have Christmas leftovers. But I have only one thing on my mind: fish and chips.

The search for the perfect fish and chips is a global quest that has taken me far and wide. You may laugh, but think again: is there anything so perfect as sitting on a wide beach watching the sun go down, your little white-wrapped parcel gently steaming, its unmistakable aroma of fried batter and salt making passers-by green with envy? Then the first crunchy chip, and the flaky fish flesh in golden batter. You can keep your fancy schmancy Thai fish cakes and gemfish in boutique beer batter. Give me a slab of flake and the minimum chips and I’m a happy camper. There’s simply nothing better.

I remember when it all came wrapped in newspaper, and you could read the outside layers as you ate. Mind you, in what we must now inevitably call the good old days, potato cakes (for some strange reason known as scallops in some states) cost five cents each, and on summer holidays we kids would buy fifteen cents worth of chips and a potato cake for lunch (perhaps a Choc Wedge as well, splurging an extra eight cents of our pocket money). We’d sit on the busted bench outside the shop in the beachside caravan park, each of us cradling our own personal little newsprint package with a hole torn impatiently across the top, and guts the lot.

For the rest of the year, Friday night was Fish and Chip Night. Each week, my brother and I pestered our parents to trek across town, past several perfectly good fish and chip shops to go to our very favourite, because its sign advertised “Chish and Fips”. How hilarious. If you wanted fish, the choices were flake (shark) or flathead. Nobody had ever heard of calamari – but then we’d never heard of aubergine or chilli either. The most exotic delicacy imaginable was a steamed dim sim.

So you see, for me, as for so many of us, it was an early addiction. On my first trip to England, nearly twenty years ago now, I got terribly excited about having real British fish and chips. I stood outside the High Street shop staring in for ages before summoning up the courage to step inside. Never mind Earl’s Court or going to Cambridge – this was the ultimate Australian cultural rite of passage. I asked for fish and chips and they’d never heard of flake. No wonder the Empire had crumbled. I was offered a choice of several fish and the only one I’d ever even heard of was cod. So off I went with my chips in a little twist of paper and a slice of smoked cod about as big as my leg which was the most revolting thing I’d ever tasted in my entire life.

I have also learned, from bitter and painful experience, never to order fish and chips at posh seafood restaurants. You look down the menu, past the seared tuna or swordfish with wasabi and get fooled into imagining that anyone who can perfect a salmon mousse ought to be able to work miracles with a bit of batter and a few spuds. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Fish and chips on a gourmet menu inevitably taste like … fish and chips. So you’ve spent your entire monthly food budget on a plate of fish and chips, and then have to spend the rest of the meal listening to your dinner companions rave about the salmon mousse.

These experiences have dimmed my enthusiasm but cannot deter me from my worldwide quest for the perfect fish and chips. They pop up in the most unexpected places – miles from the ocean, such as Alice Springs. But for some reason, they always do seem to taste better when eaten by the sea, and I have tested the local offerings on beaches throughout the Pacific region.

Sorry to sound patriotic, but we do have the best fish and chips in the world, and one could plan an entire gastronomic adventure around the nation based on fish and chips. I’ve been in gastronomic heaven on beaches from Port Douglas to Port Lincoln. The diversity of our regional fishing grounds mean you can try local specialties right beside the water, be it flathead in Mallacoota or whiting in George’s River. In Tasmania you can buy scallop pies! Hobart hosts floating fish and chip vans where you can buy gorgeous fresh seafood of almost any variety and munch it while watching the boats in Constitution Dock.

New Zealand fish and chips can be brilliant, due to the myriad seafood options and a good solid understanding of the potato. Kiwis love their deep fried oysters and white bait fritters. In tiny Whitianga, my quest brought me to a little kiosk on the estuary which served up gunard fillets that remain one of the highlights of my fish and chip-eating career, enjoyed on a grassy bank watching the fishing fleet mend its nets.

But don’t tell anyone! Some truly great fish and chip shops are now such victims of their own success that mere mortals can’t get anywhere near them. They shall remain nameless, but let’s just say fish-and-chip-seeking tourists visiting such places as St Kilda, Sorrento, Glenelg, and Bronte have driven local residents onto involuntary weekend diets.

When the quest is over, and you find your perfect fish and chips? First, cast the dietician and the gym instructor briefly but firmly from your mind. Then you must follow your own ritual. Some people tear tiny holes in the paper to ensure the chips don’t steam up and go soggy. Others smother everything in vinegar or (horror of horrors!) tomato sauce and add a pickled onion.

I simply must have a chip or two in between shop and home or beach, which involves tearing one end of the package off, just like the good old days. Those few chips always taste the best. Then there must be crumbed calamari with tartare sauce in one of those squirter packs that sends gooey stuff all down your shirt, fat chips almost brown, flathead in crisp yellow batter, and something cold and bubbly to wash it all down. Sink down into the sand, binoculars at the ready for viewing passing boats, let the kids chase away the pesky seagulls, lie back and dream of … the next meal.

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