Good Old Fish ’n Chips

Words and Photography By Paul Winter

Harbours are one of my favourite places to be, and I can think of no better way to explore harbours and marinas than by sea-kayaking around their waterways and moorings. And then, with kayak stowed in a safe place, to spend time walking around eating fish and chips and watching the harbour and its people go by.

Fish ’n chips represents a certain anti-opulence in food. In much of Africa, the best grub is often found in cheap holes-in-the-wall. And the same rings true for fish and chips. Often, the most delicious parcels—wrapped in newspaper or in polystyrene boxes—are found at small take-away shops in the working parts of harbours, or at corner cafes in quaint seaside suburbs. For just on R40 at most places, you can buy a steaming hot parcel of fried, battered snoek or hake, accompanied by a slice of lemon, and a mound of hot chips. And you always get some plastic knives and forks, serviettes, and a handful of salt, vinegar and tomato sauce sachets to take away.

These meals are best enjoyed outside the shops you bought them at—on the wooden tables with their sticky, vinyl tablecloths warmed by the sun. Or while sitting on a harbour wall, with your feet dangling over the edge. Or even as lunch, after you have spent the morning paddling around the harbour in a sea-kayak.

In a sea-kayak, you get to see many things you’d otherwise miss out on on land. It may have something to do with the fresh sea air, or rhythmic paddling strokes. But you also tend to have more ‘aha’ moments as you move along the water.

The travel writer Paul Theroux said that without his sea-kayak, a career in writing would have been like a life lived in solitary confinement.

And sea-kayaking is just what I did, as part of an extended exploration of the Western Cape and South African coastline. I circumnavigated the Cape Peninsula—including the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point. 
“When I think of fish ’n chips,” says Cape Town’s private chef, Jeremy Vermaak, “I imagine myself in England, sitting on a pavement on a lovely summer’s day, and eating this delicious British favourite off yesterday’s newspaper with vinegar-soaked chips and a tart tartare sauce. Fish ’n chips in Cape Town is painted in a somewhat different picture for me. Some of the best shops are the ones on the corner where ouma is cutting up the fish that arrived fresh off the boat that morning.”

Names of Cape Town shops that come up in conversations are Mariners Wharf, Snoekies, and Fish on the Rocks in Hout Bay; Seaforth and the Salty Sea Dog in Simon’s Town; and Kalkys and Lucky Fish in Kalk Bay. At the V&A Waterfront, Fisherman’s Choice, next to Quay 4, makes an excellent fish ’n chips that is worth buying—even if their prices cater slightly more for the tourist market.

“Ahh! Lekker vis en slap chips—nothing quite like the iconic take-away dish stolen from the Brits and now a true South African dish,” says Cape Town consultant chef, Jason Whitehead. “I think we have all had the craving a few times in our lives. The call for fresh fish in extra crispy batter, accompanied by chips smothered in salt, vinegar and tomato sauce.”

While Jason stays true to his seafood roots, he is also keen to explore variations, and has put the dish on the menu of a new restaurant in Johannesburg he is currently working with. “But with a slight gourmet twist—crispy French fries with fresh herb-battered fish, accompanied by mushy minted peas,” he explains.
Another exciting variation comes from the world-famous chef, Heston Blumenthal. Jeremy says he once watched Heston prepare his version of the perfect fish and chips, “The chips were thrice cooked—boiled, fried and oven baked. His batter was prepared with flour, rice flour, honey, vodka and beer! All this was mixed together and placed in a si-foam bottle producing extra carbon dioxide, giving the mixture a lighter, crisper texture.

“There is a science to good fish and chips,” Jeremy adds. “My recipe for a great batter works perfectly every time: 200g self raising flour, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon sugar, 2 tablespoons melted butter, 1 bottle of beer, 2 egg whites whisked to stiff peaks and folded through. Use the batter immediately.”
The dish does have its critics, though. Some say the combination of fried fish and hot chips is like committing culinary hara-kiri. Health experts warn about mixing the starch of potatoes and the protein of fish. (Apparently proteins need stomach acid to break down, but starches don’t. So if we eat the two together, neither is fully digested. This can lead to indigestion, bloating and sluggishness, they say. Our bodies then don’t fully absorb the nourishment they need for peak performance and health.) And fried fish and chips have never been a first choice for calorie counters. We have all heard the ‘fried coelacanth and chips’ horror stories at company canteens and school camp dinner halls, and sometimes, ‘fish’ means different things to different people.

“I was slightly frazzled by the fact that in Australia, the fish used to make their version is called Flake, which is a variety of shark,” says Jeremy. 
Flake or hake, no name detracts from the dish we love.

A Kayaking Adventure

Sea-kayaking is a very conscious way to travel—and it follows the trend of living close to the earth (and the sea). Cape Town is an excellent sea-kayaking destination, and there is much to see while you’re on the water. There are a handful of operators that offer safe, guided trips at places like Simon’s Town and the Cape Point Nature Reserve, Hout Bay, Mouille Point/Green Point, and Clifton and Camps Bay.
Here’s the trip I did that was a continuation of another multiple-day kayak trip I did from St Helena Bay, on the West Coast, down to Cape Town. It began at the Oceana Powerboat Club (V&A Waterfront) and followed the coastline south through to Clifton, Camps Bay, Oudekraal, and Llandudno—where I spent the first night. The following day, I paddled on to Sandy Bay, around the Karbonkelberg headland into Hout Bay, and then across to Noordhoek, Kommetjie and Scarborough—where I spent my second night. From there, I headed south into the Cape of Good Hope section of Table Mountain National Park. This was the most noteworthy part of my journey, and I tracked the shoreline past Olifantsbos and Platboom, then under the sea cliffs of the Cape of Good Hope itself, and Cape Point. After rounding the point—which is an exhilarating moment for a sea-kayaker—I paddled into False Bay past the famous Rooikrantz fishing ledges, into Buffels Bay, Bordjiesrief, Smitswinkel Bay, Millers Point and finally, Simon’s Town. At a later stage, I followed up with a circumnavigation of Robben Island on my kayak (you’re not allowed to go ashore here), and also did an exploration of Kalk Bay and the surrounding area.