Our Place

The Fish & Chip Shop

Episode Transcript

MW: A trip to the beach comes with many advantages. A swim, a lie on the sand, and at the end of the day, the prize is usually a warm bundle of mostly yellow fried food wrapped in butcher’s paper handed gingerly over a counter of a fish and chip shop.

Sure, it’s not the most glamourous of food, but fish and chips are still a wondrous treat after a day at the beach or, if you’re far, far away from a body of salt water, the perfect take away to start the weekend right.

Now this secret fish and chip business has been going on for over 140 years all across the country. I’m gonna shock you now though with some earth-shattering information. Did did you know that we’ve been eating them all wrong?  Nope, me neither. I had no idea, that battered piece of fish usually of indiscernible origin dipped in a thick floury batter and deep fried within an inch of its life, it wasn’t meant to be eaten batter and all. Nope. Not at all.

VP: “Batter is meant to be more of a vehicle for cooking fish. So fish is best cooked quickly. We know, so the English would put a batter around the fish so that it was protected so that it wouldn't dry out because they were obviously deep frying. And so the batter was something that you’re actually meant to peel off an eat the fish inside side and some people I know still do. We've gotten very used to eating the batter.

MW: I am shook with this information. I did not know.

VP: I know right? Who thought fish and chips were so fascinating.

MW: This is our place – a podcast that aims to explore the designs of everyday Australian life as a way to understand what Australian culture is today. If culture is how we tell our stories to each other, and share who we are with the world, what is that story right now? And how can we use that story to create a new and positive narrative for the future?

Fortunately for lovers of batter and who don’t mind the heartburn, like me, you can calm your irregular heart beat down now. Good news, the batter’s not going anywhere.

VP: Interestingly, the batter in Australia has evolved to become a lot thinner. So we've actually brought in a lot of Japanese techniques, because in Australia, we've started eating it. But originally in Britain, it was it was a much thicker doughier batter just to protect the fish.

MW: That’s Veronica Papacosta. She should know a thing or two about the right way to eat fish and chips.  She’s the Chief Executive Officer of Seafood industry, Australia, which is the National peak body for seafood. She’s a third generation seafood retailer, owns a bunch of fish and chip shops called Fish and Lemonade and her very own family history also reflects the role that the simple fish and chip shop has had in Australia’s migration story and our cultural identity.

It comes as absolutely no surprise that the style of fish and chips served in Australia is based on the English model, but how did something that’s now fundamental to the culinary landscape, come to exist in every single town and city in the country?

You see, fish and chip shops, while not a design per se, do provide a sort of culinary backbone to most towns, Their presence dots and connects all over the country. You’d be hard pressed not to find a fish and chip shop anywhere.  Although that is changing…

Where I grew up the fish and chip shop was a meeting place where you’d run into other locals (mostly on Friday nights, and especially if you lived out of town this was exciting) and those locals, like you had a hankering for some deep fried goodness.  As a kid, oh Friday night fish and chips were the most exciting thing to happen all week, oh it was massive. In my house, I would be charged with writing down the order on a notepad then I’d go off to the shops with mum and dad or whoever was driving and hand the order over the tall counter.

I would then spend the next twenty minutes waiting and staring longingly at the hand painted menu above the fryer, as order after order of fish and chips were dunked, fried, drained and then dumped on fresh slice of butcher’s paper. In this time I would think about all the other things I could get if I had a limitless budget. What I could buy? A burger with the lot, don’t hold the beetroot? Seafood extender crab stick, put it in my mouth?

Or how about a Chico Roll, another popular deep fried roll that is etched into many young minds mostly due to the oil-stained poster of the hot chico roll girl sitting astride a motorbike that sat atop the deep fryer’s huge exhaust rangehood and was the raunchiest thing I’d ever seen at that point in my young life. To be honest I could not get my eyes off her. Nor could my brothers. Nor could anyone in the fish and chip shop for that matter.  Think about it, at a time, pre-internet, we worshipped at her altar while waiting for her dinner, and we returned week after week to cop another eyeful. If our town had lost its fish and chip shop, on a surface level, we would have lost our Chico roll girl, but most importantly, we would have lost its beating, battered heart.

Celebrity chef Elizabeth Chong agrees with this. She reckons she feels uncentred when she can’t locate the local fish and chip shop. Same, Elizabeth, same.

EC: I would feel lost, I would feel deprived If I couldn't find a fish and chip shop, I think.

MW: that's so true, isn't it?

EC: the odd time when I think I really want to buy some fish and chips. And I've sort of moved to a new area now I that’s happened all this year as well. A new start in every way. And so I'm living in another suburb now and I think I can't see a fish and chip shop anywhere here.”

So why’s Elizabeth Chong talking to me about fish and chips when she’s best known for sharing her Chinese recipes with Australia  over many decades? Well, here’s the thing, she’s closely connected to the genius creation of one of the fish and chip shop’s most popular snacks. But more on that later. Here’s a hint though, it’s not even fish!

Before we get to that, I think it’s important to discover why fish and chip shops in Australia, have very little to do with the greasy English fish and chip shops that inspired them…and it’s all down to Australia’s migrants, most notably, the Greek/Australian community.

You see, the first proper fish and chip shop apparently opened in Sydney in 1879, and while it was modelled on the English fish and chip shops, it was run by an entrepreneurial Greek fella whose business model and success would be replicated all over the country for decades to follow.

VP: there's lots of obviously, there's lots of discussion around that, you know, the first Athanassios Comino who was who opened the first fish and chip shop in Oxford Street in Sydney, and that was in 1879. But in my sort of travels, in my discussions with people, it sounds like it was quite, it was it was more of a you know, it's that immigrant group culture. So it's the mateship, really, that that it did start with Athanassios in Sydney, anyway, I'm not sure about other states, but but it but even by 1958, my grandparents, so Vera and Con Kosti, they got into fish and chips because they had been working with a gentleman called Stavros Komothramou. And he had migrated to Australia from England. And in England, he'd been a chef. So when he came to Australia, it was actually a lot easier you didn't need there were no barriers to entry of opening up a fish shop. It was a lot harder to own a restaurant.

So I think the reason fish and chip shops proliferated in immigrant communities is a) they didn't need a lot of English, they could move into them without, you know, being a chef or being qualified.

It seems to me that also and very much in my family, this was the case it was something that the wife could be involved in, and even the eldest children, so and so in some families, and I actually have spoken to the Raptus family who started in Adelaide. And they started Oh, gosh, I think it was in it back in the 50s, as well, they, it was the father went out to work. And the mother and eldest son of the family would actually be the ones who ran the business. So, and sorry, the other part of this is that you could also leave behind or above the store, which which helped they didn't have childcare back then they definitely didn't have the money even if they could access it. So they actually got to work and raise their family and sort of teach themselves English as they went along.

MW: This is amazing. it doesn't quite go to explaining the proliferation of the fish and chip shop in small country towns where sometimes they'd only have one or two other shops. How did that happen?

VP: So my family, actually my grandparents who came into Australia in the 40s actually went out west for work. So they were very much encouraged, especially in the late 40s and early 50s to travel into regional towns. So my grandfather first worked in a restaurant and this was in Young so, 

MW: all right, New South Wales

VP: so he went out and worked for the king of cherries who also owned a restaurant out there so he started as a dishwasher and then slowly because he had a really strong work ethic worked long hours they slowly took taught him how to cook and cooking obviously was it we're from Cyprus originally so cooking was obviously something that was quite you know that everyone in the family had done so cookies cookies, a family event for Greeks so when they asked him you know, he he could cook he said of course I can you know, of course everyone can cook and from there he actually headed back into the city slowly but heading out to country towns was definitely promoted.

MW: It says a lot about who we were culturally at the time but also how keen this new Greek population were to make Australia their home.

VP: Absolutely, I mean, my grandfather was the eldest of 10 siblings. And so he once he got into business, his first job was in Lakemba. And to be in what's really interesting is he opened a fish and chip shop on Housen Street in Lakemba. There were two others. So there was one on every corner of Housen street at the time. So there were three, three Greek fish and chip shops. But he said, and he said, they were all busy, they're all mates, and they all supported each other. So that's why it was very much part of that community, it was helping each other get ahead and helping each other established in the country. As soon as he would make a little bit of money. He would bring another sibling out. So he would over the course of 10 years, he brought every sibling to Australia. Yeah.

MW:  Wow, that's incredible. What an achievement.

VP: And help them set up in another fish and chip shop.

MW:  Ah, amazing.

VP: so only imagine how many they were between 1958 and 1968? They were a way for a family to to survive. I mean, my grandmother came into the country with zero English didn't know how to speak English at all. She actually taught herself by reading comic books in between serving customers.

MW: Beautiful.

VP: So yes, yeah. She, she taught herself to read and write. So she was able to actually improve her English skill, though her English language while she was raising a family and running a business so and that that sort of spirit of entrepreneurship, I think was a very healthy in Australia at the time as well, whether immigrant or not, that was really well supported.”

MW: Veronica, I'd love I'd love to talk to you about your own experiences with fish and chip shops. It's obviously in the blood. It's something you've grown up with. Tell me a little bit about that.

VP: I think my earliest memory because I was raised literally in the shop. So my upbringing was very different to the upbringing of living above or behind the shop. This is my first memory was of drinking my milk bottle underneath the wrapping bench. So my mother used to put a pillow on the on the box of coin and I would sit on that pillow and drink my milk bottle and watch my mother's legs. I can still see it actually watch my mother's legs walk around the shop. Yea.

MW: that's amazing.

So for many Greek Australians, fish and chips are in the blood… or at least in the deep frying oil. Their existence in towns and cities across the country was the direct result of Australia’s proactive post war immigration policy Post world war 2. The Minister for Immigration at the time, Athhur Calwell’s slogan was “populate or perish” and over two million immigrants from Europe came to Australia between the years of 1947 and 1954. According to the National archives, Australia was looking to expand its population, so we also played a large role in resettling people deemed refugees or displaced persons, even setting up programs such as the Good Neighbour Council to help migrants settle into their new communities. Once settled, as Veronica explained earlier, the Greek families would bring other family members out, and the network of fish and chip shops multiplied.

The beauty of the fish and ship shop was that these simple businesses afforded the family a way to work and live – families lived on the premises and could serve food without the language and cooking skills required to run a restaurant. New family members arriving would mean new shops opening even in far flung parts of the country. Add to this an Australia that was beginning to embrace a sense of adventure and entrepreneurship, and welcomed immigrants, and we have the reason for the fish and chip shops today.

So what’s Elizabeth Chong got to do with all of this then? Well, this is where that tale of migrant entrepreneurship and ingenuity that Veronica spoke of earlier, crosses cultures to create something that is truly and uniquely Australian. This cross pollination was responsible for what has become a staple of any fish and chip order (perhaps not in all states of Australia but definitely here in Victoria where I am it’s hugely popular), and that’s the inclusion of the deep fried dim sim. For me, a fish and chip order would not be complete without a couple of dimmies thrown in. In fact, where I come from, it’s sacrilegious not to.

If you didn’t know already, Elizabeth Chong’s Dad, a Chinese immigrant, invented what we now know as the Australian dim sim.

EC: Dad invented that commercial dim sim not, the dim sim that was already available in Chinese restaurants. And that dim sim that was available in the Chinese restaurants in the 30s and In the 40s is an Australian version of the original dim sum called siomai in our yum cha collection. It's dainty and very, very delicate. And it's a  little tiny, a tiny quarter of a mouthful, it in, it's real, it's real, original look, that didn't suit the Aussie palate. And they knew they had to make it bigger. And so the siomai grew like popsy to be at least three times the size of what a su mei really is

These days they’re usually made of a meat and cabbage encased in a pastry skin. Kind of like an oblong shaped fried football… and if you’ve ever enjoyed the pleasure of crunching through the pastry skin of salty, deep fried dimmy, you know the salty, meaty deliciousness, you’ll know that the size doesn’t compromise the flavour…

Look, it’s definitely an acquired taste, but once, you’ve acquired it, the deep fried dimmy will haunt your dreams.

EC: And my father could see that Aussies just took to the dim sim like even more than they took to fish and chips. And that they would never went to a Chinese restaurant until they also came away with a brown paper bag of at least six or a dozen dim sims to take a while to get in the car going home.

MW: That's fantastic. All dim sims should be eaten in the car, I think.

EC: my dad saw, this should be really put out into the public place. He was an entrepreneurial man. He was always full of new ideas. And he said that should this dim sim should be available everywhere, not just people going to a Chinese restaurant.

MW: So Elizabeth's Dad started making dim sims in his factory with the help of his son Tom. Tom would deliver the dim sims to Chinese men too frail to work after the gold rush, who operated takeaway Chinese food caravans outside events like the cricket and the races. And on one fateful day when Tom was on a delivery, he decided to stop off at his favourite fish and chip shop in Mordialloc, run by his Greek friend Joe.

EC: Tom called in to Mordialloc because he knew the guy you johnm Joe's He probably bought fish and chips there. And he said, Hey, Joe, how that would go out and do a bit of fishing. You know, I don't have to do this in a hurry. Tom was not wanting to ever want to work too hard. Yeah. So he and Joe went out in the little Joe's little boat. They went fishing. And when they came back, Tom said, Well, how about, I'll give you some of these, and we can have them for lunch. So he opens up the box. And he said, Well, they should be steamed. And he had the steamer to give to the Chinese men, but he couldn't give the steamer away to Joe. So Joe said, Well, look, I’ll put them in the deep fryer, because that’s how fish were made…. and they loved them. Even Tom loved them fried. And so they made a lunch out of fried Dim Sims, and then Tom went and finished his delivery. And then I think probably the next day, Joe called and said, Hey, Tom, they were so good. I had my friends who also had fish and chip shops, because I think all the fishing shops were owned by Greek men then, Greek people. And they love them. And so, Tom had left the box there. And so they all loved them, as at every one of them wants to wants to supply them. And so that’s how they got into fish and chip shops.

MW: Oh my goodness. That's how the Australian version of the dim sum which was invented by your father got into fish and chip shops in Victoria and what happened in it spread like, like a wildfire, I guess.

EC: Then, my mother and a few other Chinese ladies were making them by hand to supply these elderly men, you know, in the caravan. But it got out of hand when all the fish and chip shops wanted them. And so dad had to employ more and more people, more and more women, they just made them by hand. I make them exactly the same way myself because that's how I saw my mother making them. And then dad could see this was an explosion and it was all because Tommy went fishing instead of delivering.

MW: instead of doing his work, I love it!

Don’t worry Tom, I’m pretty sure all is forgiven for taking a day off work all those years ago. Well, I’ve forgiven you, at least.

When I hear these stories, I’m not surprised that the same things keep popping up: The entrepreneurship displayed by the Australian migrant community, through sharing and collaborating and it this was what helped create something that is now so intrinsic to our everyday, and yet most of us are oblivious to it.

Food is a great signifier of culture, and the humble fish and chip shop with its relatively cheap, egalitarian food and the people who are fo und within them, it says an awful lot about an often ignored aspect of Australia’s history – one that owes so much to migrants who took a risk, moved their lives to a new country on the other side of the world and and made a real go of it here.

But what of the humble fish and chip joint in the future? Veronica’s got some thoughts…

Veronica: I think there's two elements.

One is the proliferation of brands. So modern consumers, especially millennials, and young people, they love brands. So you could you could look at you look at the rise of McDonald's and KFC and our sort of, you know, things like Betty's burgers, Guzman, and Gomez, these brands have a lot of sway with young diners. And I think they look for the brand over, sometimes over their local independent, especially that fish and chips has been losing ground, because the quality hasn't always been there in the last two decades.

So I think the increase the proliferation of brands has affected our local fish and chip shops. And I don't think they've innovated or being able to get back to that status, or that that concept of freshness quickly enough, I do think what's happening now is you've got a lot of new players coming into the industry. So there is hope, I think we're looking very much I mean, and especially for our business, we're looking at New Zealand fish, as well as Australian fish. We're also trading seafood like it's a bit more of a premium product, which is where it's needed to be price wise.

So I think the future is maybe paying a little bit more for your fish and chips, but getting a much better quality product. The other aspect that's really important here is country of origin labelling. So there's a lot of ambivalence in the seafood industry about what people are eating. And I think the people who are going to win the fish and chip space, and you actually see it, if you look across some of the some restaurant tours getting into fish and chips or into seafood a little bit heavier. It's all about origin.

MW: So while it’s clearly important to talk about the origin and the quality of the fish to ensure the future survival of our beloved fish and chip shops, let’s never forget the origin of the humble little shops themselves. This is the origin story that can teach us about who we are as a country, and how we got here today.

And that, my friends, as well as enjoying a warm bundle of beach side fish and chips at sunset, should never change…