Proper fish and chips, from a proper fish and chip shop, unwrapped from paper, pre-sprinkled with salt and condiment, an excess of chips tumbling forth, all gobbled down with greasy fingers.
It's getting harder to find.
When I moved to Bow at the turn of the century, I had two chippies almost on my doorstep. Mam's Fish Bar on the main road was ruled over by a wire-haired harridan, and was no place of culinary excellence, then closed without warning in 2005 and reopened as a Kebabish. That left Bow Fish and Chips, under the arches in Stroudley Walk, with its jar of pickled eggs on the counter and a photo of Princess Diana pinned to the wall. But I became increasingly unconvinced their cod was actually cod, so drifted away, as did the rest of the clientele and last summer this too closed its doors. It swiftly metamorphosed into the Stroudley Grill, a halal eatery with sitdown tables, whose sole nod to maritime cuisine is a £5 fish meal concealed well down the menu. It's often packed out.
This left my fish and chip options somewhat limited, indeed there's no longer a single fish and chip shop within ten minutes walk of my home. You may be similarly bereft where you are, and therefore unimpressed by my plight, but I live in the East End of London so might have hoped for better. I have therefore gone round scouting out a slightly wider area, up to one mile distant, to see whether any proper chippies survive. I found six.
East:Olympic Fish & Chips[2 Leywick St, West Ham E15] Cod £4.70 + Chips £1.80 = £6.50
This corner shop near Abbey Road DLR just scrapes into a one mile radius from my home, although the River Lea is in the way so it's a lot further to actually walk there. Back in 2012 the owner was slapped with a prohibition order because the name 'Olympic' contravened brand guidelines and international sponsors needed protection. Ha, they've since changed it back again and not a single prissy marketing executive cares, nor will ever visit. This area of West Ham retains a core chippie demographic my part of Bow now lacks, so this shop has a genuine 'wooden fork' feel with low prices to boot. If I lived nearer, I'd definitely give it a punt.
East:Station Fish Bar[2 Memorial Avenue, West Ham E15] Cod £6.00 + Chips £2.20 = £8.20
Just down the road from the Olympic, facing the entrance to West Ham station, is this fast food travesty. Despite retaining the word 'fish' in its name, one glance at the menu reveals that its priority is dispensing bundled meals containing grilled meat and fizzy drinks in various combinations. Anywhere that has a chicken in its logo, promotes ribs and has sufficient queueing space to house two football teams is unlikely to produce light fluffy fish in freshly crisp batter. I note from the helmeted learner-moped parked outside that they do deliveries, but at those prices I'm definitely giving it a miss.
South:Barry's Fish Bar[222 Devons Rd, Bow E3] Cod £4.95 + Chips £1.75 = £6.70
This is now my closest fish and chip shop, just over half a mile from home. Alas, other than the name, there's nothing particularly 'Barry' about it. The menu is a lot broader than simply fish, as can been seen from the strip above the window plugging 'Kebab Burger Fried Chicken Pizzas', and the emphasis seems very much on Turkish grilling rather than battered cod. Further signs of underwhelm come from fish being in the last column on the backdrop menu, not the first, and 'Fish & Chips' being the eleventh item on the online dropdown menu, after pasta dishes and pies. I'm sure this place thrives on its diversity, but for fish and chips I've decided against.
West:Britannia Fish Bar[101 Grove Road, Mile End E3] Cod £5.40 + Chips £1.80 = £7.20
Yes, this looks genuine. Everything about the signs above the door and the stencils in the windows screams sea-sourced food options, including a substantial amouunt of blue background and a splashy cartoon fish to make the point. Inside is a proper counter with crisp fish behind glass, and a well-presented menu someone's taken time to produce rather than playing around with scrappy plastic letters. OK, so the lowest panel on the shopfront features cutout burgers and chunks of unfeasibly perfect fried chicken, but these days diversification is key and I'll not hold it against them. It's on my list to sample, just a little far away.
North:Gary's Fish House[440 Roman Road, Bow E3] Cod £?.?? + Chips £?.?? = £?.??
As an East End bastion, Roman Road in Bow retains two fish and chip chops, one at each end. This is the furthest one, but the closest to being a little sit-down cafe with plastic tables and a tiled floor, as well as serving up fried goods to take away. Though not quite boasting an adorably Cockney pie'n'mash ambience, it is very much what you'd hope for in this neck of the woods. Unfortunately its shutters are currently down, with two sheets of A4 paper stuck to the front apologising for a two week holiday, because who the hell wants fish and chips in a summer heatwave anyway?
North:Saucy Kipper Fish Bar[626 Roman Road, Bow E3] Cod £5.50 + Chips £1.90 = £7.40
So this is where I ended up, at a chip shop at the right end of Roman Road for me to reach most easily, and which has at least attempted to come up with an amusing name. Inside is a proper counter with rear access via sliding glass doors, supplied by Rangetek of Sevenoaks, with stacks of battered sausages and fishcakes gently warming within. A choice selection of medium-sized cod fillets is lined up neatly at one end, and punters can also plump for rock salmon, haddock, plaice or skate if they're willing to wait. Hell yes, there are even individually wrapped Pukka Pies, and some appropriately dubious cans of soft drink on display in the chiller cabinet behind, plus a tureen for ladling mushy peas. Sure, the menu also extends to kebabs, but they're in the last column not the first, so that works for me. The chirpy server added two extra scoops of chips to my paper baglet, placed gleaming cod on top and liberally sprinkled seasoning over everything (including the counter). My bounty was wrapped in paper, then slipped into another paper bag, then dropped into an unbranded plastic carrier for safe transport. And when I got it home it was indeed splendid, the fish thick and flaky and the multitude of brownish chips just the right side of soggy, indeed it was no problem to gobble every last one down.
I like fish and chips.
I hope I don't lose my last few sources to chicken and kebabs any time soon.