Hooked on hake and slap chips
It’s the way those succulent white flakes slide over one another. Hake skin and batter stick slightly to the newsprint. In their own saliva-inducing aura of salt and vinegar, potato chips lie alongside the fish, slap and simple.
The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here.
When we up here in Jozi say we want fish and chips, we mean hake and chips. Then, even when the chips are the double fried and crispy sort, we still want vinegar and salt shaken over them.
We don’t really want the fancy fish. Sometimes someone has snoek because it’s a nice fish but it isn’t a nicer fish and chips fish. Some places want us to have kingklip and chips, as if hake isn’t wonderful enough especially under creamy-golden batter. Kingklip is not for fish and chips. Actually it’s not for much when there’s hake already and it’s not quite as green as Cape hake on the SASSI list anyway.
I rather like the fact that all my favourite hakes and chips turn out to be from places owned by South Africans of other origins. Like pretty much all of us in Jozi. One is South African Madeiran, another South African Indian, and then one is South African Chinese.
The South African Madeiran owner, Nic de Sousa’s mum had a fish and chips shop right next to a Belgravia corner store whose owners were the parents of Daniela, the girl that Nic eventually married, not first realising it was the shop-next-door girl who used to share his pushchair. They opened The Fish & Chip Shop at Victoria Yards out of nostalgia and Nic’s irritation with super-media-branded goods.
It’s cunningly positioned at the entrance. Or exit. The Fish & Chip Shop has a streetside window too for passers by and a couple of benches outside in case you want to eat your hake and chips right there. I do, though it’s a cold, breezy day.
I unwrap my medium hake and chips in haste, the creamy newsprint wrappings threatening to blow away, ignoring the plastic cutlery and sachet of tomato sauce. I notice another man eating his hake with a knife and fork but it seems too removed for the close-up engagement I desire with this food. The batter is all it should be, even lightly herbed, enclosing wonderfully warm, firm fish, delightful hake of course.
I’d noticed on the board above the counter that there was a hake kota to be had too, as well as hake burger plus all the fish and chips sides and sauces.
Mine is plain on purpose. The chips here are the crispy sort and jolly good too.
A huge pink King Prawn wholesale and distribution lorry parks outside, delivering more fresh hake fillets, while I scoff my lunch and lick every hake flake from my fingers. The lorry obliterates today’s chilly and rather quiet view of Victoria Yards till I’m ready to turf the papers in an outside bin and return the cutlery and sauce sachet.
South African hake and chips is most popular in the cities of Jozi and Pretoria and where the old English tradition of the food has less and less influence. There’s a bit of a fallacy about fish and chips shops disappearing. They may have departed like corner cafes from some neighbourhoods. I know fish and chips shops are are on the increase in populous areas of Soweto. For instance, in Jabulani, Klipspruit, Dobsonville I can think of many. I can think of many around the more central areas of Joburg too. It’s apparently relatively inexpensive to set up fish and chip franchises as opposed to those for pizzas, burgers and chicken. However, there would be no such enterprises were it not for our consumer enthusiasm for hake and chips.
I was sad to read online recently that, though it is a very healthy thing to eat fish at least once a week, were we to do so just a little more often, we would be causing more depletion of the oceans’ supplies.
In Jozi the four or so generations of the large and very extended, originally Indian Akhalwaya family has mostly food shops of all descriptions. Solly’s Corner in Fordsburg has been one of them since 1956. The nearby and no longer useful Avalon movie house was apparently part of the local weekend treat of movies and Solly’s takeaways.
I wait at the counter for my order of medium hake and chips. The place thrums, seemingly driven by the nervous energies of the current generation’s sons, panicking with hake and other orders and fulfilling them speedily enough. The place has photographs all over the walls and even the ceiling of famous locals, mostly soccer and boxing successes. Some of the burgers and sandwiches are named after other international names like The Zidani.
Since I was here last, there’s a lot more red signage and also many new Solly’s Corner’s own packaged Russians, Viennas and things for sale. The hot sauces are something of a speciality and one of the elder family members tells me “that one brings tears to your eyes just by smelling it”.
One guy with three cell phones asks, “You’re a Parktown girl – you’re not from here?” He says they get a lot of visitors, curious because they’ve heard about the place. He seems older than he looks because he distinctly remembers a Pacman machine in the corner of the shop near where I’m standing today.
There’s a new fryer I notice, almost as electrically quick as the man that stood in that position before him. He liberally shakes the masala spice onto the battered hake and even more liberally shakes salted vinegar onto the chips, slappening them even further as he whips the newsprint sheets about the lot into a neat, perfect parcel.
Last time here I bought a little plastic pack of Seedless Plum sweets and this time I’m tempted by something called Haw Flakes but even more by Super Fruit Sours “made from red frit (sic), tamarind, sugar and flavouring”.
In a nearby park I release the hake and chips from their paper bindings. As expected, the chips are super-slap and wildly delicious. The hake, sort of squared off in shape, is nevertheless exquisite in texture, steamy hot and punchily spicy hot on the battered surface from that first shaker. It’s just so right for this yet-another freezing day of a mighty cold week on the highveld.
I think the idea of fish and chips shops disappearing is more of an origins story, from Britain where many have given over to curry places. But the dish has always been a bit international in true origin. I’m not sure if there were real English fish and chips places during Jozi’s gold rush, though they had started up during the 1800s in London and in the north. But fried fish could probably have been had in our own mining days. In Britain it had arrived in crisp batter with Jewish escapees from the Spanish inquisitions in Spain and Portugal. Britain’s fries had come from Belgium. Ours have since transitioned into only-once-fried slap chips.
At first glance the Fish Hook in an unprepossessing “centre” in Darrenwood seems to uphold a strange Britishness, like the mention of mushy peas as a side order. That’s until you see the Chinese calendar picture near the licence on the wall and the Chinese good luck papers just inside from the counter area.
Norman Kee is South African, Chinese from four generations ago, and an accountant and business consultant when he’s not playing chippy, with his wife Candice. He, his brother and a friend bought the place from “a friend of a friend” last December.
A well spaced, well-masked queue snakes along the pavement and into the parking lot. Every now and then, Norman emerges in his Uzzi sweat top, calling an order. People waiting in the parking lot step forward to claim their orders in blue plastic bags with the paper-wrapped fishes and chips inside.
Although there’s a table and chairs outside the Fish Hook on the pavement, I reckon it’ll be nicer to be away from the queue and make it another Jozi park meal.
As the steam evaporates off the unwrapped parcel I pull off a piece of hot fish with my winter fingers, Then it’s the way those succulent white flakes slide over one another. Hake skin and batter stick slightly to the newsprint. In their own saliva-inducing aura of salt and vinegar, potato chips lie alongside my fish, slap and simple.
Of all of these hakes and chips I’ve eaten over the past three days, this is the only one that’s been new to me. I’m inclined, at first bite, through the deeper golden, more substantial, crisper batter, to reckon this shouldn’t be missed by such hake and chips collectors as I’ve just lately become. Somehow the hake seems hakier too.
I’m inclined too, after all this last hake’s bites and almost every one of its slap chips, also outstandingly good, to consider myself madly lucky to have had three of the very best hakes and chips that Jozi offers. I’ve had these steamy hot treats over the three iciest but sequential days. The offerings have all been slightly different, all ludicrously good. “I love hake,” I say a bit thickly from behind my scarf when I scrunchle up the last paper. DM/TGIFood
The Fish & Chip Shop, Victoria Yards, Lorentzville. 060 713 0279
Solly’s Corner, corner Lilian Ngoyi and Central St, Fordsburg. 072 047 8105
Fish Hook, Woodley Centre, Darrenwood. 011 888 8249
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