(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 26.)
A profound socio-culinary change has passed almost unremarked in New Zealand. I was reminded of it by a recent news item announcing the result of a contest to find New Zealand’s top fish and chip shop.
The honour went to a takeaway outlet named So Fine Seafoods, in the Hutt Valley suburb of Avalon. But what caught my eye were the names of the proprietors: Anthony Cho and Jian Huan Zhou.
Fish and chips have been an essential part of New Zealand’s culinary traditions for as long as anyone can remember. They were among the items of cultural baggage that working-class British migrants brought with them in the 19th century. In fact fish and chips are one of the few notable contributions the British have made to international cuisine, along with the glorious meat pie.
But an interesting happened to fish and chips in New Zealand. They were hijacked by people of Mediterranean origin.
In the New Zealand of my childhood, most fish and chip shops were owned by Greeks, Dalmatians or Italians, all of whom showed a natural aptitude for the dish.
I suppose these migrant groups took to cooking fish and chips because they were accustomed to a fish diet in their home countries. My guess is that they started out by catching and selling fish – this was certainly true of the Italian community in Wellington, who dominated the fishing trade – and progressed naturally to cooking it in batter and serving it with deep-fried chips, like the English.
So adept did these Mediterranean nationalities become at cooking “greasies”, as they were affectionately known, that I believe New Zealanders enjoyed the best fish and chips in the world – better by far, certainly, than any I have eaten in the UK or anywhere else.
In my own home town in Hawke’s Bay, we had two fish and chip shops. One was owned by Jack Radonich and the other by Mark Ujdur. They were directly opposite each other in the main street.
Back then we called such people Yugoslavians, which was a bit of a misnomer. They were more correctly called Dalmatians, from a coastal region of what is now Croatia. (At least “Yugoslavians” was more accurate than “Austrians”, which is what New Zealanders called them until the First World War, since they came from what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire.)
Jack Radonich and Mark Ujdur were probably from families that migrated to Northland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to dig for kauri gum. When the gum ran out, some of these people turned to winemaking (hence the many prominent wine companies of Dalmatian origin, such as Montana, Babich, Nobilo and Delegats). Others went into the fishing business (the names Vela and Simunovich may ring a bell) and some with more modest aspirations settled for fish and chip shops.
We favoured Jack Radonich over Mark Ujdur (which we pronounced You-jar). Being Catholics, and thus forbidden to eat meat on Fridays in those days, we were regular Friday night customers. This was one Catholic tradition which, despite widespread antagonism toward Catholics, had permeated the entire community. Friday night was fish-and-chip night for Protestants and Catholics alike.
Jack Radonich was a shy, gentle man with smiling eyes. His English wasn’t good – a raucous Kiwi offsider named Ted dealt with the customers – but his fish and chips were more consistent than his rival’s. And if you were in the know, you could walk through the dining room and place your order in the kitchen out the back where Jack did the cooking, while lesser beings waited patiently at the counter in the front of the shop.
It’s a tribute to the staying power of fish and chips that decades after the Pope waived the rule about not eating meat on Fridays, they are still a Friday-night tradition for many New Zealand families. What’s even more impressive is that they have survived in the face of fierce competition from fast foods that in my childhood weren’t even heard of, such as KFC, pizza, kebabs, Asian takeaways and the ubiquitous McDonald’s.
But to get back to my starting point, the other significant development in the fast-food business, besides its rampant proliferation, is that the Chinese have finally learned how to cook fish and chips.
It took some time. In the 1970s and ’80s I would avoid Chinese fish and chip shops. Chinese cuisine may be among the most delectable and varied in the world – I often think if I had to choose one ethnic cuisine to eat for the rest of my life, it would be Cantonese – but their skills didn’t seem to lend themselves to a culinary style as foreign as fish and chips. Their fish too often seemed excessively fatty or stale, their chips soggy. The Greeks, Dalmatians and Italians remained the masters.
My son and I once deduced, from intensive research, that your chances of getting good fish and chips were best if they came from a shop that was owned by one of the above ethnic groups and had blue waves painted on the shop window. Don’t laugh – the blue-waves rule proved a pretty reliable guide.
But the Chinese are nothing if not adaptable. Their ability to observe and learn has made their country an economic powerhouse. And so it was probably inevitable that they would eventually get the hang of traditional Kiwi greasies.
I haven’t tried the fish and chips from the award-winning So Fine Seafoods. In fact I don’t eat a lot of fish and chips these days, much as I love them. But in Wellington the other night I stopped, as I have done several times before, at a Chinese-owned fish and chip shop in Molesworth St, just up from Parliament.
It’s impeccably clean and it’s run with an efficiency that Jack Radonich would have gazed at with astonishment. But most important of all, it makes fantastic fish and chips – fresh, crisp and irresistible.
If I were a Greek, Dalmatian or Italian fish and chip shop proprietor, I’d be seriously worried. At the very least, I’d be painting blue waves on the front window.