photo taken by powerplantop, on July 13, 2013, CC licensing.
Like other people, Jews play Charades and Scrabble, Clue and cards. My own family is particularly fond of Trivial Pursuit. But I think by far the most popular parlor game among Jews—whether from New York, Budapest, Istanbul or Tel Aviv--is “Jew Who.”
You might know it by another name, but if you’re Jewish, you most certainly know the one I mean. It usually begins with something like, “Did you know that Maggie Gyllenhaal [or fill in your choice of seemingly unlikely candidates] is Jewish?”
Actually, it’s not solely a Jewish game. James Tyrone, the patriarch of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, insists that like him, Shakespeare was of Irish Catholic ancestry.
Like the Tyrone children, I too was usually skeptical as my mother ran through a raft of names “before they changed them” as proof the people in question were at least part Jewish. And I was doubtful once again when I first heard a British Jew claim several years ago that the British national dish, fish and chips, was invented by a Jew.
But after further exploration, I became convinced. And in fact, you can still find fried fish in a matzoh meal crust even at some non-Jewish fish-and-chips shops in London today.
This fish story begins in the mid-seventeenth century, when Jewish refugees of Iberian descent first introduced Britain to the joys of fried fish. Jews had been expelled from England at the close of the thirteenth century, and although a few covert Jews did remain, practicing their religion in secret, it was more than 350 years later before Jews were officially allowed to resettle in the country. Many of those who came from Holland had acquired a taste for fish fried in olive oil in their native Portugal. Not only was this cooking method kosher, but unlike fish fried in lard, beef drippings, or even butter, fish fried in olive oil was still delicious when served cold on the Sabbath. Known as “fish cooked in the Jewish fashion,” it became quite popular. Thomas Jefferson was a big fan; Hannah Glasse, Britain’s first domestic cookery goddess, gave a recipe in the 1781 revised edition of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple for “the Jews’ way of preserving salmon and all sorts of fish”: it calls for dredging the fish with flour, then dipping it into egg yolks before frying in hot oil.
By the mid-nineteenth century, fried fish sold by hawkers or in shops was ubiquitous in working class areas, especially London’s East End. There we find Fagin, the villainous Jewish caricature Dickens created in Oliver Twist, living in Field Lane, where there is a proper “fried fish warehouse.”
At about the same time, Irish shops were selling slices, or “chips,” of fried potatoes. And so, according to both Wendy Durham, editor of the trade magazine Fish and Chips and Fast Food (yes, there really is such a thing!) AND the UK’s National Association of Fish Friers, an enterprising Ashkenazi fishmonger named Joseph Malin, made the match, opening the first ever fish-and-chips shop in East London in 1860.
Just when a matzoh meal crust entered the picture, I’m not certain. Some sources claim that Jews ate their fish coated with matzoh meal back then. But I tend to doubt that, because commercially made matzoh meal was not readily available at the time, and crushing matzohs finely enough for coating fish would have been a tedious project, likely limited to around Passover.
Anyhow, that’s just what I wanted to eat on my recent trip to London not long before Chanukah: matzoh-meal coated fried fish at Oliver’s in Belsize Park. Jewish-owned, it does not serve treyf, though it isn’t kosher-certified. But I could have gone to other restaurants as well—even non-Jewish “chippers” often give you a choice of batter or matzoh meal along with your choice of fish.
I ordered plaice, a delicate, thin fish, better suited to matzoh meal than a thickish sort, like the more common cod. Gilded and sizzling hot, the massive fillet took up my whole plate. No “chips”—with the huge fish fillet, that would have been fry-overkill for me—so just a tart green salad for contrast.
The fish was expertly fried. And you know, whether French fries or latkes, fried chicken or fish, it’s not crunchiness alone that makes properly fried foods such a treat. It’s that sublime mix of crispy crust giving way to a tender, delicate interior.
Like Chanukah itself, that combination is another miracle we owe to burning oil. For at the same time the hot oil is creating that golden exterior, it’s also causing the juices in the food within—potatoes, fish, chicken—to gently steam and concentrates their flavors, yielding exceptionally delicious results. Ever notice how tender and intensely chickeny the inside of fried chicken tastes?
Here the matzoh meal, like panko (Japanese breadcrumbs), kept the crust light and crispy dry—unlike batter, which tastes wet and greasy, and all too often simply falls off in big hunks. And the plaice inside was flaky and perfectly moist—almost creamy.
Really good, yes. But a bit bland for my taste, though I showered it with malt vinegar and sprinkled it with salt (and I’m not a tartar sauce sort). To really sing, it wanted a little note of oomph.
The waiter, who said that about half their patrons ordered matzoh meal instead of batter, told me how they make it. The fish—extremely fresh—is dusted with rice flour, then dipped in egg, and coated with plain, unseasoned Rakusen's finely ground matzoh meal before being fried in hot vegetable oil.
At home, I tried it my way. I gave the fish a short salt water bath, so it would taste as if it had just swum in the sea. I skipped the flour and went straight to the beaten eggs. I seasoned the matzoh meal with sea salt and plenty of fresh ground pepper; one time I flavored it with smoked paprika and once with Indian spices. And fried it all in olive oil.
And somehow I was back—not in Britain, but at my mother’s table. She too dipped her fish in matzoh meal, then sizzled it in olive oil.