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October 9, 2017 | by  | in Food |
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Fish ‘n’ Chips ‘n’ Nationalism

An uncontroversial charge would be that fish ‘n’ chips are the best result of British colonialism to date. Enduringly, according to Nielson research, it remains New Zealand’s most popular fast food, starving off competition from Dominos and sushi shops, and has affirmed its place in Kiwi culture and consciousness.

Introduced to Britain by Jewish people from Spain and Portugal in the 18th century, fish ‘n’ chips gained traction with the expansion of fish trawling methods in the North Sea. A testament to the dish’s ingenuity, the tradition of fish ‘n’ chips later became a synonymous reflection of the British working class. To George Orwell, it represented “home comforts” — with deeply fried crispy battered cod or haddock the order of the day, potato for sustenance and more crisp; the meal only complete with a side of mushy peas.

In late 19th century New Zealand, seafood was never the strong suit of early British immigrants. Instead, it was other Europeans who settled later such as the Croatians (Dalmatians), Greeks, and Italians who pioneered the earliest notable memory of fish ‘n’ chip shops in the country. Involved as they were in commercial fishing, the retailing of fish ‘n’ chips was a logical extension. Not the domain of any one culture, Māori too, with a long seafood eating tradition, were involved in this process from sea to plate.

It is again uncontroversial to suggest that fewer things convey a collective sense of “New Zealandness” more than fish ‘n’ chips. Of course, this comes up against rugby, awash with masculine sentimentality, the type still mythologised and locked in place. While nationalism is notoriously hard to pin down in New Zealand, it would be nice to move beyond constructed national narratives that nod at emollient tales of a glorified past — like those sought for at Gallipoli exhibitions about Pākehā internal struggles and resolve. Other forms of parochialism that come from rugby culture shouldn’t really be canonised, and then that leaves us lost. What is the thing that best articulates a collective sense of nationhood?


The Fish and Chip Brigade. 1980. From left- David Lange, Michael Bassett, Roger Douglas, Mike Moore.

The Fish and Chip Brigade. 1980. From left: David Lange, Michael Bassett, Roger Douglas, Mike Moore.


After spending an entire week fizzing with excitement, Devi and I embarked on a trip out to Avalon, Lower Hutt, with our eyes on the prize — it was here that So Fine Seafoods was found, fresh from being acclaimed as the Best Chip Shop in New Zealand for 2017, a title awarded by a competition where chips are tested for saturated fat content, which has to meet “industry standards” before the shop is even allowed to participate. We ordered strategically, attempting to get the best of everything: genuine paua fritters appeared together with crumbed mussels, crinkle cut chips, straight cut chips, two types of fish; the works. The friendly boss, unfortunately still donning a newly sponsored McCain’s t-shirt (oh how quick to capitalise), explained to us his winning technique: longer than usual post-fry air drying, as clean oil as possible, fresh fish, and being good with your customers. He walked the talk and so naturally, midway through gorging our greasy faces on a grey afternoon, in a car parked close to a park, we concluded that it was probably the best chip shop in the Hutt. But the whole country? It was great, but was this really the peak of New Zealand fish ‘n’ chip glory?

My favourite Wellington chip shop is none other than Fish ‘n’ Chips on Tory. Like many others, it is a family affair. In my frequent visits, I’ve observed that Mum and Dad run the show through the week, with the boy answering phone calls and working the till during the weekends. I’ve noticed the father, steadfastly filleting what I recognise as blue warehou with such ease, and even the faint beginnings of a wry smile. Unlike other chip shops, the focus here is purely on fish ‘n’ chips; no comprehensive Asian fare available, which sometimes can serve as a distraction. Large fillets battered or crumbed (they do lovely homemade crumbed), and chips you know must be made from potato, genuine service, no holes in my pocket, frills, or a need for status assertion.

And then I wonder why acquaintances are heading to Mt Vic Chippery. I would like to state unequivocally that the Chippery do a great trade, and that the concept adds to the ecosystem of fish ‘n’ chips retailing. However, unlike fancy pants Wellingtonians (Peter Jackson, my nemesis David Burton, and other aspiring fancy pants), I wilt at the suggestion that what they serve could actually be considered fish ‘n’ chips. Just like beer with no alcohol, or love without the fall, working class fare should remain working class fare — I recall clearly the grim reluctance that comes when chip shops raise prices to keep up with food costs, the apologetic notice on the wall; they are looking out for us too.

A few months ago I spent a day exploring Tokoroa with my Dad — we were there on a hobbyist excursion to find out if the new Fonterra plant could possibly serve to create more jobs and opportunities, to regenerate what seemed like a forgotten town. On this entry-level political economy excursion, we took time out for snacks at the local chip shops. Boy, was I pleased as I negotiated between 30 different creative combos, the option of raw fish, and a clear preference for shellfish. Among other things, we loaded up on the “muscle packs” — they were simply the best mussels I’ve ever had. Leaving Tokoroa that day,  I promised to return soon enough, ready for round three.


Although hard to believe today, prior to the inception of the Fourth Labour Government, we’ve been told, egalitarianism was the order of the day in New Zealand. So while it was the same strident equality-driven streak that quivered at tall poppies, it was also true that the sense of a collective “us” — one which heightened communal links between people — would have then been at its most pronounced. Whether a hangi at a school, beach picnics with your family and friends, or the Friday night fish ‘n’ chip dinner (stemming from Roman Catholic meatless Fridays), these are traditions that endure from times long before us, and we are all better off for it. I’ve heard friends, too many times, lyrically recounting the pleasure of walking home from school tearing a hole in the chip parcel. Fish ‘n’ chips, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, is deeply engrained in many of these narratives that we now read through the veil of nostalgia.

It has been said that operating a fish ‘n’ chip shop provided many Asian families a way to make a living when it was especially difficult for ethnic minorities to integrate into the established economic structure. The prevalence of Asian family-run chip shops emphasises the integral nature this dish plays in the lives of all New Zealanders. As a frequent site of cultural exchange, in the trading of a cultural culinary commodity, it seems that no other signifier ticks as many boxes for an island nation in the South Pacific. Articles like biscuits, lollies, and tea, also denote the veneer of nationalistic mythology, but often these things can be rightfully discarded in the Kiwiana pile — my friend who works at Te Papa glibly describes Kiwiana as white New Zealand’s attempt to invent their own culture by consigning value to domestic consumer goods.


While video shops have come and gone, it seems certain that fish ‘n’ chip shops in their current form are likely to remain on the shop corners of every suburb. However, with tides of change sweeping in, chip shops also need to be able to better reflect changing tastes in order to resist becoming museums. This doesn’t mean serving food for trendy health-conscious folk, or selling your shop as a franchise of the Chippery; rather it means adapting a menu, sometimes stretching operating hours, and exciting the consumer without sacrificing its identity. A dream of mine, still real from my vegetarian past, would be to walk into a chip shop and order large crispy strips of battered tempeh (Indonesian fermented soybean) with a scoop of chips. Or better still, a different way of serving sustainable shellfish that is not simply frittered.

Perhaps controversially, one day the chip shop could be the natural site for disaffected millennials (hopefully not as ethno-nationalists), struggling with casual contract work, to dream something bigger again. After all, that’s the story of the “Fish ‘n’ Chip Brigade” on Molesworth Street that led to the inception of the Fourth Labour government.

Benedict Anderson’s reflection on the history of nationalism, as an idea and practice, argues that nations are not naturally existing political objects, but rather evolving symbolic constructs. His approach reminds us that the nations in which we happen to live are neither inevitable, nor eternal containers for our aspirations toward justice and our longing for solidarity. While fish ‘n’ chips should never be a reason for chest-thumping zeal, people elsewhere have certainly settled for less.

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