In Brooklyn, a World of Fried Fish

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The humble fried fish, its crisp exterior giving way on first bite to a flaky fillet, often dipped in a creamy sauce or served with coleslaw, is equally comforting under a warm sun or in a pub on a rainy day. Often battered and fried in oil, fish fry is a meal important to cuisines around the world, and likewise among the diverse neighborhoods of Brooklyn.

Brooklyn was founded as small villages in the 1800s, with many of the first settlers coming from Ireland and Great Britain. Fish and potatoes have long been both popular and plentiful in the British Isles, and the raw ingredients were readily available in the immigrants’ new coastal home. However, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that fish and potatoes (aka chips) cooked in oil became a popular working-class staple in Britain; it found its way to the United States not long after.

Thick white fish—like cod—do particularly well in the cold water of the North Atlantic, and hold up well to deep frying. It was easy to cook bite-size pieces of potato in the same oil, making a quick and easy-to-prepare meal. This traditional version of fried fish is dipped in a heavy beer batter made from flour and a local brew, the carbonation of which adds air—giving the fried fish its signature puffiness as it comes out of the deep fryer. Served with a side of tartar—creamy mayonnaise brightened by the acidity of chopped pickles—alongside starchy “chips” doused with malt vinegar or dipped in curry sauce, this version of fried fish is classic pub fare.

But a different take on the fish fry has roots in the Southern United States. Soul food traditions, defined as the foods that came from African-American culinary customs—initially those that arose during the time of slavery—prized fried fish as a filling and affordable meal. Southern rivers, lakes and ponds are a good source for cat fish, which became the popular fish used for frying. When African-Americans migrated to Brooklyn in large numbers in the early 1900s, they brought their version of fried fish with them. A traditional soul food fish fry uses more delicate fillets, coated with a mix of locally milled cornmeal and our for a flakier crust. Today, Southern fish fry is often available alongside fried chicken in casual restaurants or takeout joints, accompanied by traditional side dishes like sweet potatoes and collard greens.

It should be no surprise that immigrants from Caribbean island nations would also bring their distinct take on fried fish as they arrived in New York in large numbers last century. Today there are more Caribbean-owned businesses in Brooklyn than any other and this borough has the largest concentration of Caribbean-born residents in the United States. Among the most common Caribbean-inspired take on fried fish is the dish known as “bake and shark,” a popular street food sold in Trinidad and Tobago. It is traditionally made with shark meat tossed in flour and seasonings before it is fried, served atop a pan-fried flatbread, alongside condiments like tropical fruit chutney, hot sauce, garlic sauce or cabbage slaw. Because severe overfishing has greatly depleted the shark population, bake and shark is now often made with a similarly meaty fish like whiting. Another frequent Trini preparation is fried fish served in a roti—an Indian-inspired thin pancake—stuffed with meat and vegetables and rolled like a burrito, or shredded and served open-face (aka “buss up”).

Yet despite the global popularity of the fish fry as a filling, unfussy meal, what unites the diverse origins of this dish is its cultural symbolism.

Renae Holland is the chef at Bon Chovie, located in Bay Ridge and seasonally at Smorgasburg.

“Fish fry is universal,” says Debbie McClain, an owner of Brownstone Jazz in Bedford-Stuyvesant, as she explains her choice to offer a complimentary fish fry buffet during her weekly jazz events at Sankofa Aban Bed and Breakfast. “It connects people. Just like jazz.”

Around the borough there are numerous events that consider the same. Sunny’s Bar in Red Hook also offers fish fry events periodically around the year, such as on the winter solstice, which they’ve been hosting for the past 20 years. And various local churches and community groups choose fish fry as the means for raising money or connecting people.

The fish fry is also ingrained into American culture through religious customs. During Lent, Catholics eschewed eating meat on Fridays, bringing rise to the Friday Night Fish Fry as a weekly or seasonal event. Fish, too, has deep religious symbolism: the story of the fishes and the loaves that miraculously fed a crowd has elevated fish to be a symbol of Christian community and faith. Even for the non-religious, Friday night grew into a day for family to convene for a meal in communities from the Deep South to the Midwest and beyond.

Newer Brooklynites are also putting their own spin on the fish fry, battering various kinds of fish and serving them alongside nontraditional sauces or sides. Renae Holland, owner of Bon Chovie—open year round at their new restaurant in Bay Ridge and seasonally at Smorgasburg—said her signature deep-fried anchovies were inspired by European traditions. She remembers her moment of inspiration: “It seemed like every seaside culture in Europe had these delicious small fish on the menu. I thought, ‘Why can’t I bring that here?’” Yet with its cornmeal-based crust and creamy dipping sauce, the briny, umami-packed result is born in Brooklyn.

But it can also be the link between the past and Brooklyn’s new culinary present, with a focus on sustainable ingredients and innovative takes on American classics. Teddy’s, which opened in 1887 and is the longest continually operating bar in Brooklyn, has new owners who are wedding long-standing tradition with the tastes of the evolving neighborhood. Said chef Jared Lozupone, “We’re… increasing the quality of the meat, sourcing more from local farms and doing things like pickling in-house. It’s old traditions, yet modernizing them.” Despite these changes, Teddy’s still plays host to many regulars on Fridays, including a group of nuns who come for the fish fry.

Perhaps one can see the fish fry as representative of the diversity of Brooklyn itself. Fish fry connects people, as Debbie McClain has said, while also giving recent immigrants and those proud of their heritage a taste of their past or their home. From the long lines at a takeout joint in Bed-Stuy to the dim lighting of an upscale seafood shack and cocktail bar, fried fish has a unique role in Brooklyn: bringing people together and allowing both new and old residents of Brooklyn a taste of their neighbor’s culture.

Where to try:

  • Friday nights at historic Teddy’s Bar and Grill in Williamsburg, fried fish is a perennial special. Chef Jared Lozupone deep-fries thick fillets of sustainably caught cod in a rich beer batter and serves it alongside cornmeal hush puppies and homemade kale slaw, with a kicky southern riff on classic tartar for dipping. 96 Berry Street, Williamsburg
  • Welshman Michael Colbert always has fish and chips on the menu at Longbow Pub and Pantry in Bay Ridge. There they cut the generous cod fillet into three pieces, to allow for sharing or easy takeout, and fry them in a batter made from the Yorkshire beer Old Speckled Hen. The hand-cut fries are the result of years of recipe development, and the curry sauce is apple-based, making it a bit chunkier and sweeter than most, with a nice spice finish. 7316 3rd Avenue, Bay Ridge
  • At A&A Bake & Doubles Shop in Crown Heights, get there early for the popular bake and shark made with whiting, dusted in flour and seasonings and quickly fried, served with a pan-fried flatbread and a choice of sweet tamarind sauce, hot sauce or sweet and spicy mango sauce. 481 Nostrand Avenue, Crown Heights
  • Ali’s Trinidad Roti Shop offers fried kingfish or butterfish as a “bake” with flatbread, or stuffed inside a roti—a thin wheat pancake-like bread stuffed with meat and vegetables and rolled like a burrito. 1267 Fulton Street, Bedford-Stuyvesant
  • Bed-Stuy Fish Fry offers light cornmeal-battered fried fish for takeout, alongside plenty of other southern classics like candied sweet potatoes and collard greens. 801 Halsey Street, Bedford-Stuyvesant
  • Enjoy the complimentary fish fry, made from whiting and accompanied by coleslaw, offered by Brownstone Jazz at their weekly music events hosted within the historic Sankofa Aban Bed and Breakfast. 107 Macon Street, Bedford-Stuyvesant
  • Smorgasburg alums Bon Chovie in Bay Ridge have opened their first brick-and-mortar “rock and roll” fish shack with fried anchovies as their signature dish. They also offer both a cornmeal-based fried fish sandwich and a beer-battered fish and chips entrée. 7604 3rd Avenue, Bay Ridge
  • Industry darling Extra Fancy elevates classic seafood fare at their retro-chic upscale clam shack, where their fried fish comes with smoked tartar sauce and a seasonal slaw. 302 Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg
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