Fish and chips for the soul

(originally published as “Slap chips for the soul” in Student Life, April 1997)

YEARS OF observation show that white people smell their food and coloured people kick other people’s dogs. Black people wear fuzzy socks. In the 70s, brothers who sniffed their chips applied for reclassification and let sleeping dogs lie.

Thus our divided community. But these divisions are artificial. My launderer indicates that even Wit Wolwe own fuzzy socks. Whites thus should raise their ankles and express black pride. And brothers can sniff – without fear of being labelled play-for-white – AND wear fuzzy socks to matinee discos.

And thus the ubiquitous chip: whether slap or crisp, it husbands the nation’s unity. Yes, fish-an’-chips, soulfood of the nation.

It’s colonial and all, but we’ve made it our own. Where else snoek-en-tjips? And variant peri-peri vienna-and-chips or chicken-and-chips? And brandy-and-coke and chips? But mushy peas and chips? No thanks.

Fuzzy traditionalists argue that pap-en-vleis is the indigenous precursor. Just back from China, however, Cape Colonists tried frying the pap, but no can do. Then they tried potato. By then, Khoisan dog-kickers had redistributed their cattle, and the sniffers turned to fish.

Because ‘chips-an-fish’ sounds more Szechuan than Anglo (chipszan fish?), they inverted it. Then marketed it in England. Once it sold there, everybody here wanted fish-an’-chips. Traditionalists laugh at such absurdity.

But the concept responds well to change and now binds us as only soulfood can. All this without the global marketing muscle like that burger joint’s. The taste for soulfood runs in the blood and doesn’t need advertising.

What is soulfood? The food the unpretentious majority eats, whether they sniff pungent vinegar, kick at dogs begging for titbits, or wipe the sweat of their labour with a fuzzy cloth at lunch break. Food that unites us.

Example? Sometime during the dark 80s, I found myself in Port Nolloth. North on the N7, then left at Steinkopf, the road pitches straight through an expanse of sea sand and hardy shrubs: diamond country. On a mission with a friend who was under Security Branch surveillance, we didn’t stop to redistribute some wealth.

Where the road runs smack into a vicious, cold Atlantic, there’s Port Nolloth. At the local F&C shop, we slipped through the ‘slegs nie-blankes’ entrance. The batter on the fish was canary yellow; the chips, pale, slap, undercooked.

We ate staring at the sea, watching diamonds grow where a dredger lay moored, rusting. I mused over how people entered through separate doors to buy the same bad food from the same hands. And how we’d all get sick because the oil was recycled. Foulfood.

Soulfood is invisible to the soulless. It is what marginals eat, those without the economic power to show off their menus in the media. The suppressed menu; the one we’re sometimes too coy to admit to; the food we eat only to wash our hands quickly afterwards.

Take crayfish. Decades ago, no sniffer would touch it – too robust a bouquet – and only dog-kicking fisherfolk ate it. Then some capitalist made it big selling the spider overseas and voila, crayfish lost its soul and only rich sniffers can afford it.

Soulfood may differ regionally. A Gautenger chicken joint won’t open in Cape Town: the visdorp has its fish-an’-chips, and chicken joints already. And Gauteng is landlocked, so more ‘Tengers lick at chicken than at fish. If they had the sea…

The biggest difference comes from class. Pretentious sniffers only touch chips at restaurants with ‘fries’ on their menus. And so do ladidah dog-kickers who say ‘caw’ instead of ‘car’. Admittedly, they sometimes ‘pawk the caw’ outside Vinoos (Gatesville) for a parcel of vienna-and-chips. And sharp-dressing fuzzy duddies have theirs at the Keg-and-Browse – fish in beer-batter. Get real.

No, soulfood is when you can smell the fish and vinegar. Many a childhood Friday lightened up when dad came home with a pungent parcel, mom too tired to cook. It was a cheap, tasty treat when restaurants were off-limits for kickers and fuzzers.

Those pre-KFC days. I was young but already skilled at kicking dogs as I cycled past them. With friends I hung out on street corners to express our destiny wedded to this country: a loaf of bread, halved, scooped out, filled with fish-an’-chips. Lipsmacking with Coke or Fanta. If short on money, we settled for chips and bread: the bunny chow sans curry, the collective chiproll.

On a holiday job lifting cotton bales at a towel factory, I had a friend who introduced me to fuzzy socks. I regaled him with my dog-kicking exploits. Lunch-time found us reclining under Port Jackson trees, hollowing bread and tearing at fish. My father, repressing his roots, yelled blue murder that evening when I said I wanted a pair of fuzzy socks. He sniffed nervously at his food, tragically untouched by the unifying power of Friday’s meal.

Things are changing. The power of advertising grows and more people – dog-sniffers… erm, food-sniffers, dog-kickers, fuzzy duddies, all slip into chicken houses, pubs, burger joints. Is soulfood diversifying? What then the state of the nation?

In Cape Town, soulfood does a roaring trade where its eaters hang out. So Captain Dorego’s – a franchise nogal – is found at the third-class side of Cape Town station, the Strand Street Concourse (close to the bus terminus), and Constantia Main Road (for soulster domestics working for sniffers). And on UCT’s campus, a place which needs soul. Tellingly, they’re not at Cavendish Square or the Waterfront.

And so too do many small, true-blue soulful F&C shops dot the larger metropolitan area. Captain Dorego’s is but one purveyor of fine chips: crispy on the outside, but essentially slap, limping easily under gravity’s pull. You can’t do them at home. And they’re not the pre-cut, parboiled stuff bought in big bags from Sir Chippendale. They’re peeled and sliced online. Such fine chips have I known too in my youth, from Lady Grey Street Fisheries, Paarl. Such soul.

Soulfood is eaten by hand, important for bone-detection while eating snoek, the best tasting fish with chips. But nothing beats the ease of stockfish/hake when eating by hand. The flesh breaks away quite easily and, with few bones, it’s soulster convenience food.

Whatever fish, the batter must be crisp but not dry. Soulster tempura, really. Liberal dousing with salt and vinegar puts the meal right up there where it counts. With a short lunch-break, soulsters don’t have time to dwell on delicate flavours.

At true-blue joints, you don’t beg for salt and vinegar. The attendants know how much salt soulsters require, working for the man and all that. They themselves have soul.

If your purse is coy, the chiproll is the real alternative. They’ve come into their own over the past decade. No longer hors d’oeuvre only, chiprolls are full meals that satisfy the South African daily two-starch requirement.

The soft roll is the superior companion of chips – I refuse the crusty roll. But if the latter is the only available, a pickled onion on the side softens things up. Indeed, the soulful F&C shop sports a jar of these on the counter. For a few cents more, you can add extra tang to your chiproll or, if your purse allows, to your fish-an’-chips. And don’t forget, salt first, then the vinegar to spread the salt.

2 Responses to Fish and chips for the soul

  1. Nadia Davids says:

    brilliant rustum–read it over a decade ago–loved it then, but it has even greater poignancy now—feels like reading a document from pre-globalised SA–

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