Not so long ago, the closest you could get to having a conversation about chips would have been when you ordered a portion of them at your local fryer. Now, chips are more than just chips. Whether they come double-cooked, triple-cooked, shallow-fried or made from sweet potato, plantain, cassava or even courgette, the simple deep-fried favourite certainly has a lot more to say for itself than it used to.
"It's very easy to think of chips as a frozen pack dumped in a fryer," says Tom Kerridge, the chef and owner of the two-Michelin-starred Hand & Flowers gastropub. "But it's the same as everything else: treated well with a bit of love and respect and they can be fantastic."
For Kerridge, the resurgence of street food has had a big impact on our appreciation of what was previously dismissed as "junk". "We're getting burgers, chicken wings, hot dogs, all that American-style street food and you suddenly realise a really well-made burger is something beautiful and brilliant," he explains. "When chips are alongside that profile of fast food you realise they're a very good accompaniment. We work hard to make sure each chip of ours is a very high-quality chip." When it comes to the pursuit of the "perfect" chip, however, Heston Blumenthal's technically magnificent triple-cooked recipe is still considered the gold standard.
"When it's made right, you've got a really light, fluffy inside to the chip and you've got lovely light yet crisp glass-like textured crust on the outside," explains Ashley Palmer-Watts, the executive chef of the Fat Duck Group, who has spent years serving the triple-cooked wonders.
"It's like a roast dinner. You can have a perfectly cooked piece of meat, but if the potatoes aren't good it lets the whole thing down. And I get more excited about the roast potatoes than I do the actual meat. It's the same with a chip." In fact, Palmer-Watts takes the integrity of his chips so seriously that for six to eight weeks each year he stops serving them. "There's a period in the year when you finish the old season's potatoes and the new season's potatoes come through. They're too sugary and just don't produce really good chips. So we'd rather take them off the menu than serve something that isn't as it's supposed to be."
Other chefs have been looking beyond the potato to make their chips. Indeed, it's not difficult to find a vegetable more exotic than the potato. But whether a chip can be made out of anything else remains a point of contention, one that Kerridge feels strongly about.
"Chips are done with potatoes and that's it," he says. "A classic's a classic. You can call a courgette a chip but it's not, is it? It's just a courgette that's been fried. A chip is done with a potato!"
Ben Tish, the chef director of Salt Yard Group, who serves up some "very popular" Venetian-style courgette and parsnip fries at his restaurants, represents a more progressive view. "Chips are done to death," he says. "The next step has to be to do something different.
"People always want something fried and crispy that they can dip in something and chefs have been experimenting with different vegetables and alternatives – there's definitely a bit of a movement for that.
"In effect, a chip is a cut. If you chip something then you are cutting it into a certain shape to be fried. So I don't think that's specific to potatoes. They're obviously the most common form of chips, but there's no scientific reason why you can't have a parsnip chip!"
Courgette Fries with Tomato Alioli
By Ben Tish
We have paired these fries with a tangy, sweet tomato alioli. A mandoline with a "spaghetti" cutter attachment will make light work of slicing the courgettes. You can sprinkle them with chopped fresh thyme or rosemary leaves as soon as they come out of the oil.
For the fries:
4 large courgettes, ends trimmed
2 litres olive oil for deep-frying
Milk for dipping
Plain flour for dredging
Sea salt and black pepper
For the tomato alioli:
100g ripe cherry tomatoes cut in half
A pinch of castor sugar
1 teaspoon Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar
Fresh thyme or rosemary, chopped (optional)
First, the tomato alioli. Place the tomatoes in a small saucepan with the sugar, vinegar and a splash of olive oil. Season with salt. Place the pan on a high heat and crush the tomatoes. Turn the heat to low and cook for about 30 minutes, crushing at regular intervals. Aim to reduce to a rough, dryish paste. Allow the paste to cool and then stir through the alioli. Slice the courgettes into thin strips.
Place the chips in a colander and sprinkle with sea salt. Put the colander over a bowl and leave for 20 minutes. Pat the courgettes dry. Heat the olive oil to 170C in a deep fat fryer, or until a chip fizzles when dropped into a pan. Place the milk and flour in separate bowls. Dip the courgette pieces in the milk and then dredge in the flour. Lower half the fries into the oil and move them around. When golden brown and crisp, drain on kitchen paper. Repeat with the second batch. Sprinkle with Maldon sea salt and chopped herbs, if desired. Transfer to bowls and serve with the alioli on the side.
From 'Salt Yard: Food & Wine from Spain & Italy', £30, saltyard.co.uk
SOME OF THE BEST TRADITIONAL CHIPPYS...
Beach Promenade, Stonehaven, AB39 2RD
The winner of this year's Fish and Chip Awards in the best takeaway category, you can rest assured that this husband and wife run shop is "officially" the best chippy around.
Rock and Sole Plaice
47 Endell Street, London WC2
The oldest fish and chip shop in the capital. With tiled walls and traditional fittings, it's as if nothing has changed since the shop started trading in 1871.
Frankie's Fish and Chips
Brae, Shetland, ZE2 9QJ
Britain's most northerly chip shop, Frankie's has won a host of awards over the years including the From Field to Fryer award for its top notch chips.
Smith's Ideal Fisheries
164 Yarborough Road, Grimsby, DN34 4DN
Known to the locals as "Smithies", this family business, renowned for its crinkly chips, has been running since 1933 and all its fish is sourced from the local docks.
01472 322 000
6-8 Hanbury Street, London, E1 6QR
A retro-themed chippy in the heart of the East End; you'd never guess it only opened a few years ago. Expect your chips to be wrapped in newspaper and rock'n'roll playing from the jukebox.
Aldeburgh Fish and Chips
226 High Street, Aldeburgh, IP15 5DB
With its fresh fish and local potatoes, fried the same way since it opened in 1967, this shop has been described by many as the "best in the world".
FACTS ABOUT CHIPS
1.6 million tons of potatoes are made into chips every year in the UK.
People from different regions in the UK have their own preference for chips. Southerners prefer them with salt and vinegar, people in the Midlands like to add cheese or curry sauce, while the Scottish are most likely to choose curly fries.
The best potato varieties for making chips are King Edward or Maris Piper.
Fish and chips were among the few foods not rationed during the Second World War, though the taste quality declined due to the second-rate frying oil that was available.
There are 10,500 specialist fish-and-chip shops in the UK, massively outnumbering all the major fast-food chains.
Every year, Britain eats its way through 250 million portions of fish and chips.
The largest portion of chips was fried up by the Fish and Chip Shop at Southend-on-Sea, which served up 448kg in a single box in 2011.
Henleys fish-and-chip shop in Essex holds the record for the fastest serving of chips cooked from scratch. The potatoes were chipped, cooked and ready to eat in just 222 seconds.
The world record for wrapping chips is held by Steph Celik, from the Blue Whale fish-and-chip shop in Yorkshire, who wrapped five portions in just 58 seconds.
In the 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell implies that by keeping the masses happy, fish and chips helped to "avert revolution" in Britain.