This month, How to Eat is taking a bite out of a true British culinary icon - chips. The variations are endless, but so are the opportunities to get chips totally wrong
Sunday roast, the full English, Christmas dinner, How to Eat has been fearless in tackling the most contentious meals in the British culinary canon. This month, however, the Word of Mouth blog seeking to define the best way to eat our favourite foods is wolfing down arguably (we eat 1.6m tonnes of the things each year), Britain's favourite foodstuff: chips.
Whether a "chippy tea" is a regular feature in your house or you limit yourself to a monthly treat, you love Burger King's fries or Heston Blumenthal's triple-cooked version, the mighty chip is a subject about which everyone has an opinion. But please keep it civil below the line. Frying off the handle or quick-tempered chippiness will make you look like a spud. Salty exchanges are welcome but unnecessarily vinegary insults will not be tolerated.
We will touch on chips as part of a meal below, but, primarily, How to Eat is concerned with chips as a meal in themselves - solo with garnishes. Which raises the question, which chips?
Cash in your chips
1) Skin-on: the adult chip, the chip that tastes of soil, honest toil, clean rain and clear country air. Patty Smith's in Leeds produce a peerless version.
2) Proper chip-shop chips: paler, uneven buttery beauties; each chip a profound journey from smooth core to its lightly chewy, caramelised tips.
3) Fries: essentially, a vehicle for the transfer of hot oil from fryer to your stomach. Yes, they're a bit limp. Yes, they're airy. But its carbs, its oil, you've dredged a handful in Tommy K. Don't tell me that doesn't taste sublime.
NB. I am not averse to the gourmet chip, seasoned with sea salt and rosemary, but easy on the latter, please. That is a big, bullying herb which, as Tom Jaine once wrote of Jamie Oliver, many modern burger kitchens use, "like a demolition-man uses a lump hammer".
The chips are down
1) Oven chips, of all descriptions. A mealy, plasticky abomination against god.
2) Sweet potato fries. As David Bowie once put it, albeit not about chips (at least, I don't think so): "This is not America."
3) Crinkly, curly and, particularly, "spicy" fries. How old are you? Seven... eight? Oh, you're 34 and you're eating curly fries. Right. OK. Enjoy your chicken nuggets.
4) Chunky chips: hunky, handsome and manly, eh? The gutsy uber-chip. Or a big unwieldy lump of undercooked potato. See also, potato wedges.
5) Scallops. It may be amusing to watch the disappointment on a southerner's face as they unwrap their discs of potato, but, really, on their own or sandwiching a Yorkshire fishcake, the scallop is a peculiar hanger-on, which never ceases to underwhelm.
An ambivalent word about triple-cooked chips
Produced by a skilled cook, they are, in their way, revelatory. As tanned as a 60-year-old Mediterranean sunbather, the exterior shatters like spun sugar giving way to an impossibly fluffy interior. Like high-definition TV, however, the triple-cooked chip is so perfect, so precise in its detail, that it seems unreal somehow; a chip from outside our common frame of chip reference. Rather than wolf them down, slathered in gravy, they demand that you contemplate them like exquisite porcelain. Which is fine, occasionally. But oftentimes, you just want a pile of greasy, softening chips, not glassy crunch down to the last bite.
Toppings, sauces and condiments
Your chips require a light even salting, a generous dousing in real vinegar (ie not non-brewed condiment), and, preferably, will be topped with a generous heap of scraps. That is the ideal. Always insist that you apply the condiments yourself, incidentally. I have never come across a chippy yet that, by my standards, isn't a bit stingy with the vinegar.
Of course, salt and vinegar need not be the end of it - although, ALWAYS insist that they are applied first for maximum penetration. There are a variety of toppings and sauces you can add and three in particular which (if used individually, please no heinous mixing), form a holy trinity.
- Chips and curry sauce. The ultimate. Hot vinegar, that spicy, glossy khaki sauce (the hottest available, it is always footling) and a layer of salty carbs: it is irresistible in its logic, almost Goan (see, vindaloo) in its inspiration.
- Chips and gravy. A dish that speaks to my northern soul. The beefier the better of course and it needs to be reasonably thick; none of that pallid, light brown chicken gravy malarkey, please.
- Chips and beans. A comfort food classic. Sweet, almost creamy, tomatoy beans, irregularly interrupted by a sharp, vinegary twang, after which you immediately settle back into the warm, carby embrace of the now marginally moistened chips. How can you not love that? One clear advantage of beans over gravy, is that they augment your chips without rendering them so soggy you entirely lose the chips' crunchiness and chew.
Note: I'm discounting mushy peas on the basis that the vast majority served in British chippies are an abject flavour fail, woolly and musty and also filling to the point that, halfway through a portion, you are likely to start begging a mate to shoot you - or, less dramatically, just take them away from you - to put you out of your gastric misery.
Some thoughts on cheesy chips
There are, of course, cheesy chips and cheesy chips. For instance, Sticky Walnut in Chester serves parmesan and truffle chips which make your brain dance with serotonin. However, that is yer la-di-dah restaurant tucker, whereas we are talking about chips served as a stand-alone meal, generally in a café or chippy, where the choices are usually grated cheese grilled on fries (not unpleasant but inessential, and frequently OTT - no-one needs mozzarella on chips), or chips slathered in thick, processed, glow-in-the-dark cheese-type-cheese gunk (disgusting). Cheesy chips is one of those things (eg. a threesome; taking a year out to write a novel; the Smiths reforming), better left as an idle fantasy. It sounds exciting, but it could well end in disaster.
I would argue good quality chips are perfect simply dressed in salt and vinegar. Likewise, I would not add ketchup if eating chips and gravy, much less chips and curry sauce. Despite what the Germans claim, curry and tomato sauce is a head-on flavour collision.
However, there are plenty of occasions in which dipping sauces come into their own. They can transform a plate of tired fries into something triumphant.
Double dip: tomato sauce, the classic. Tartar sauce, the livener. Aioli, the oooh-get-him!, cosmopolitan choice. Sorry Belgium, but mayo on its own is utterly dull, a creamy layer of, so what? It needs garlic, paprika, something in there to make it interesting. Sadly, this doesn't happen outside of restaurants (it should, it'd be brilliant), but there is nothing like mopping-up the last of your steak juices and Béarnaise with a few fries. Indeed, as anyone who has ever dipped their chip in a freshly blitzed tomato and sweet pepper sauce or a little chimichurri will tell you, Walthamstow's Chips with Dips may be onto something. There surely needs to be greater creativity and boldness at the chip/ dip interface.
Dips to tip BBQ sauce, the devil's work. Brown sauce, not with chips. Any kind of sweet chilli sauce, unless your chips are made out of chicken, in which case they are chicken-dippers not chips (take them back to the point-of-sale, you have been conned). Sour cream and chive or similar, too thin with chips. Anything involving the word salsa, particularly if it utilises tropical fruit.
When, where and how?
As long as you are hungry (drunk and borderline-ravenous is the perfect state), then a portion of chips hits the spot any time after 10am. If taking away pure chips (salt and vinegar, no gravy etc), then the perfect if unfashionable serve would be in a paper bag/ wrapper. Obviously, with gravy or curry sauce you need some sort of tray.
A cone, however, is wholly unacceptable. Instinctively (granted, I haven't done the maths), I suspect you get less per-portion, due to the way the chips stack. Secondly, the vinegar naturally collects at the bottom of the cone, creating an inedible, sour soggy mash. Yet, conversely, any gravy or such is impeded in its progress, so that you are left with an undressed core. It is a failure on all fronts.
On the street is the obvious place to eat chips. Not just because they are the ultimate street food* (great in the sun, yet a tonic on a cold, wet wintry day), but also because they are deteriorating from the moment they are served. Get them eaten. Cutlery? I say fingers all the way. Better curry sauce on your cuffs, than the frustration of trying to repeatedly lift a chip or two to your mouth, on a tiny fork, only for it to break-in-two millimetres from your gaping cakehole. If you must, use a wooden fork. There is something very satisfying about biting into one, a certain give and resistance in the wood. The cheap plastic forks, in contrast, introduce a note of prison food parsimony to proceedings.
*One clear advantage of heading home is that you can make yourself a chip butty or five, using white sliced bread and butter (no marg, no spreads). I reject both the chip barm and any attempt to serve a "posh" chip butty. A big floury barmcake, like real, dense, thick-cut bread, is too dry for a chip butty. It is carb overload. You will still be chewing three hours later, as the heartburn kicks-in.
Chips with everything?
In short, no. Lasagne? Pizza? Full English? These are just some of the already complete meals which do not require chips. Likewise, think about what you are partnering chips with. Fish, steak and chicken are all classics because - additional sauces or not - they in themselves offer enough lubricating juice and fat to off-set the potential dryness of the chips. This is not the case with, for example, a roast beef sandwich, quiche, a gammon steak, or any of the numerous things that you regularly see misguidedly paired with chips. At the risk of being marched to the Greater Manchester border and ordered never to return, I would also argue that the correct formulation is pie 'n' mash not pie 'n' chips (cue: angry mob).
A can of pop. Or a strong cup of tea.
Chef, a word ...
Jenga stacks, dinky stainless buckets, twee mini-frying baskets, fake newspaper cones, these all prompt one question: where are the rest of my chips? I count eight. This is a joke.
Dudes, can you all stop just piling stuff, anything, on chips ... and calling it food
One of the most pernicious aspects of the rise of "dude food" has been the emergence of chips as a bed for anything: pulled pork, chilli, ground beef, chorizo and onions, hotdogs, bacon bits and mustard sauce, mac 'n' cheese, chocolate ice-cream (I jest, but ...). Do not try and pass-off that sorry mess as food. And, please, do not try and tell me that poutine is, essentially, chips and gravy. The Canadians use a, ahem, paltry gravy (usually chicken or turkey) and they put fresh cheese curds on it. In the name of all that is holy, why?