“Why wouldn’t you just have salt and vinegar? Is this a southern thing, putting pepper on your chips?”
It’s January, 2007, and I’m having a very confused conversation with a cockney university housemate about his upcoming takeaway order. We’re very swiftly making our way through the piercingly cold Mancunian air from Castle Irwell student village to Little China on Salford’s Lower Broughton Road, as he extols the virtues of their salt and pepper chips. In his brief four months up north, he’s seemingly become obsessed with them, while I have no idea what he’s on about.
Fast forward 13 years and some form of salt and pepper dish will regularly make it’s way onto any order I make at a Chinese restaurant. Chips, chicken wings, ribs, tofu, I want that ferocious concoction of green peppers, onions, chillies, salt and spices on absolutely fucking everything. That fateful January evening in 2007 brought me up to speed with a cuisine that has been thriving in the North West for almost 30 years.
It’s painfully ironic that a Londoner was the one to introduce me to this staple of Chinese chippy menus as, primarily, salt and pepper dishes are a North Western stronghold. Venture much further than Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Lancashire or Yorkshire and this sweet, savoury, salty sensation becomes a woefully rare sight on chippy menus.
This is perhaps to do with the fact that the dish originated in Liverpool, the city with the oldest Chinese community in Europe and home to ‘the golden triangle of Chinese chippies’.
Scouse native Gabrielle de la Puente passionately extolled in a recent Vittles newsletter that, “Around my Nan’s in L8 alone has Kevins, the Lucky Star, Chius, KKs, Lee’s, Leung Sang, Ringo’s, Hang Fung; and more and more for days”, signifying the sheer density of Chinese chip shops that have cornered the fish and chip market in Merseyside since an influx of Chinese immigration to the city in the 1960’s.
According to a 2017 Liverpool Echo article, the addition of salt and pepper to chips was, much like all seismic cultural happenings – Joe Pesci’s year of Goodfellas and Home Alone, the birth of G-Funk, debut of the Premier League, Kappa popper trackie bottoms and, of course, the early Hollywood works of Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler – a ’90s phenomenon.
Speaking to the Echo three years ago, Chinese restauranteur Kin Liu, owner of pan-Asian establishment Chamber 36 lifted the lid on his own family’s history with the dish, revealing to the local paper, “There were always demands for salt and pepper chicken wings and ribs, and due to picky customers the salt and pepper chips were created.”
As with all inventions, the history of inception can be murky and contested, with Mossley Hill stalwart Chris’ Chippy, in operation since 1967, claiming they began selling salt and pepper dishes when ‘a master chef brought his recipe along in the 1960s’.
Whatever the exact date and location, there’s no denying that the salt and pepper mix making it’s way from chicken and ribs to chips is one of the most seminal culinary moments in British food history. Might actually be tied for first place with the first time crisps were put on a sandwich. Either way, it wasn’t long before salt and pepper made it’s way down the m62 and quickly began to take over Mancunian chippy culture.
Suddenly, ambling out of the rain on a freezing Friday night to await your usual assortment of battered goods lashed in salt and vinegar with a tin or two of Dandelion and Burdock became a spicier adventure. The glow of the flecks of chilli dotted across the sumptuous golden grease of freshly fried potato, patterned between translucent wedges of onion and deep green pepper, packing just the right amount of crunch in contrast to the pillowy innards of the chips. It became too much to resist even for the most ardent traditionalists.
It was an added element of adventure, transforming the chippy tea into a more dynamic, exotic experience. The 3am beer soaker had an upgrade on the gut busting sledgehammer doner while hangovers were simply burned away. An all purpose, multi faceted marvel had landed in our city and it was embraced wholeheartedly.
Manchester’s chippies weren’t exclusive to the phenomena, either. China Town sit down restaurants were awash with salt and pepper dishes on their menus, with the evolution snowballing through to the modern day with the arrival of the Arndale Market’s very own Salt & Pepper Manchester, opened by Chloe Tao and her brother Cash 18 months ago.
The ‘merging of the East and the West’ was, unsurprisingly, a smash hit upon opening, with instagram immediately awash with satisfied customers eager to show off their portions of sesame seed smattered sticky chicken, beef and prawns, sitting atop piles of fragrant Asian slaw and paired with extra crispy crinkle cut chips (the best type of chip, by the way. Disagree and we will throw hands. Name the time and place). Every brown box that dropped on the timeline was another verse in the siren song drawing city centre dwellers helplessly towards the south side of the Arndale for their fusion fix.
“We grew up totally encompassed in the Chinese takeaway food industry, with our parents owning a takeaway as well as my grandparents before them,” explains Chloe, reminiscing over three generations of history and tradition. “We noticed that a lot of British Chinese kids were branching out of the industry and although we tried our hands at other professions, we kept coming back to food.
“We wanted to keep the family legacy alive, but also use our western upbringing to elevate and modernise the Chinese fast food experience. Thus, Salt & Pepper was born.
It was during Chloe’s formative years in the takeaway industry that she came to know and love salt and pepper dishes, churning out a procession every weekend while working for her parents.
“The first time I really came to notice salt and pepper was in the later years of my parents’ takeaway. I used to work there on the weekends and all of a sudden, there seemed to be a huge influx in orders of salt and pepper dishes – my parents’ salt and pepper wings were a favourite and I just remember having to wrap up seemingly never-ending portions on busy weekends.”
But what of Chinese home cooking? Given that salt and pepper was thrust upon the North West as a chip shop hybrid, has the style of cuisine translated to family meals over the years?
“We eat salt and pepper dishes at home, and we order them in traditional Chinese restaurants too. The flavours and ingredients are simple and classic Chinese staples, so it’s a really easy and tasty dish to whip up for the family.”
Of course, as with any rampantly popular cuisine, the next step is for customers to turn cooks and try their own hands at recreating the classics within the confines of their own kitchens. But mastering salt and pepper is no easy feat, as Chloe explains, balance is crucial
“Well without giving too much away, you should focus on balance with the salt and pepper blend. You don’t want any spice to be too overpowering and you want to keep it true to the umami flavour.
“I would say one of the main mistakes people make is retaining too much moisture in the vegetables they use. Salt and pepper dishes are typically deep fried and crispy, so big chunks of vegetables can make the dish soggy – not really what you want.
It was said sogginess which was one of the culprits behind Chloe’s most miserable salt and pepper experience, and perhaps goes some way to explaining why the North West is so synonymous with the cuisine, as further North in Scotland, everything was awry.
“I had this really bad salt and pepper dish at a food market in Glasgow a few months ago. It was salt and pepper breaded prawns, but the prawns were really mushy and not fresh. And, like I was saying before about moisture, they had these huge chunks of onions and veg that were really soggy and just overall unpleasant. Plus, the seasoning was sweet for some reason.”
Luckily, closer to home, as Chloe continues, we’re better served for our salt and pepper options, with one spot in particular being reserved for special praise, “Our friends at Pho Cue are cranking out some good salt and pepper dishes along with their classic Vietnamese food.”
Marrying the familiarity of the traditional with the explosiveness of Chinese ingredients is what has cemented salt and pepper chips as the heavyweight champion in their field. In the advent of ‘dirty’ and ‘loaded’ fries, where once proud chips are reduced to limp, starchy vessels for dousings of various flavoured mayos, tepid chilli con carnes and coagulated cheese sauce, salt and pepper offers vibrancy and, perhaps most importantly, the need for a solid tin of fizzy pop as accompaniment. If it’s pissing it down on a Friday night or it’s cracking the flags on a Saturday afternoon, that’s a meal you’re not turning down. It’s a lunch hour treat that will perk you up, leaving you gasping for more rather than leave you gasping for air at your desk. It’s a morning after the night before pick-me-up that somehow still does the job while cold and dotted with condensation from it’s polystyrene packaging.
“The best salt and pepper experience I’ve had would be back when I was working at my parents’ takeaway. During the shift, when orders came in, my dad would throw some extra wings or ribs in for me and I’d end up having a little salt and pepper box that I would snack on whilst working.
So, while there are a few establishments dotted around the UK that list salt and pepper dishes on their menus, it’s comforting to know that our own backyard, and just down the road, is where it was done first and where it’s being done best. Better still, we’re blessed with countless Chinese chippies and restaurants from which to enjoy them from. Which actually gives me an idea for another article * sends request to curate ‘The Top 100 Salt and Pepper dishes in Greater Manchester’ article to editor *.
See you in the queue on the South Side of the Arndale in the first week of December.