x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

The frites of the matter

The humble fried potato is a source of contention around the globe, no matter which story of origin you accept.

It is hard to believe that the humble chip has become so contentious across the globe. A potent symbol of American business success but also a virtual pariah in the United States, it's been patronised by presidents, played a prominent role in several wars and had its origins called into question. The size, shape, taste, nutritional qualities and even the name are issues that have occupied some of history's most influential figures. It's a hot potato.

In the UK, the very concept of the fast-food French fry is anathema to those brought up with slow-moving fish and chip shops. For Brits of a certain age, the sights, sounds and smells of the traditional chippy are to be savoured. But ever since the big US eateries moved into UK high streets several decades ago, the chunky old chip has been struggling manfully against those stiff little fingers from the States. It's one skirmish that continues to simmer.

As patrons of the Abu Dhabi Intercontinental Hotel's new Belgian cafe are discovering, however, the battle to be top chip isn't quite as cut and dried - or cut and fried - as the Anglo-American axis might assume. The finest fries may, in fact, derive from a different European source, where, indeed, they were invented. And it isn't France. Small, fried fish were the regular accompaniment to dishes in southern Belgium's Meuse Valley in the 1700s, but when the Meuse froze over, the natives tried frying similar-sized strips of potato as a short-term substitute. It caught on, and over the next century these small fries found their way across the nation and on towards its neighbours. By 1859 they were well established in Paris, according to a British literary classic. "Hunger was shred into atomics in every farthing porringer of husky chips of potato," wrote Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, "fried with some reluctant drops of oil."

The spud-loving British would go on to chop their own chips a little fatter, but the original thin-cut fries had already been introduced to the States, by another illustrious figure. Arguably the nation's greatest president, Thomas Jefferson served "potatoes fried in the French manner" to guests in the early 1800s, having previously been minister to France. The wider public's love for fries only really took hold after the First World War, however, as US soldiers spread the word following their return from European outposts. It is widely assumed that the term "French fry" became firmly entrenched after allied soldiers were served the dish by Belgians, and confused their nationality. There's gratitude for you.

That long-established label was almost an unlikely casualty of another global conflict in 2003. America's House of Representatives headed a rename campaign as tensions grew with France in the build-up to the Iraq war. The new suggestion? Freedom fries. It didn't catch on, and the original prefix has been given the new regime's seal of approval. "French fries are my favourite food in the whole world," confessed the current first lady, Michelle Obama, to Women's Health magazine in September. "If I could, I'd eat them at every meal. But I can't."

The name may have survived, but the fries have evolved enormously since those early Belgian days. The Americanisation of the chip can be attributed to another of the nation's first families: the McDonalds. Fries are a cheap food to produce, but the slightly random size and shape of the European chip didn't sit well with the innovative Idaho brothers, and particularly their ambitious partner, Ray Kroc, in the late 1950s. So they set up a dedicated lab to determine the perfect potatoes for frying, and a computer to analyse how long to cure and cook them.

As Eric Schlosser revealed in his best-selling and rather off-putting book Fast Food Nation, in 2000, McDonald's remained a relatively traditional restaurant chain until the mid-Sixties, when it began freezing its fries in a bid to standardise, quicken and cheapen production. The distinctive flavour of McDonald's fries was a product of the cooking oil used: 93 per cent beef tallow, which made them higher in saturated beef fat than the accompanying burgers. Under pressure to get healthier, the global giant switched to vegetable oil in the 1990s, adding the mysterious ingredient "natural flavour" to keep them tasty.

American-style fast-food fries are difficult to tell apart these days. Thinly cut, pre-salted and generally glazed with sugar to produce that crisp golden coating, they're pre-cooked, frozen and flash-fried in the store, but often left to go cold and hard on the racks. Savvy customers know the apposite time to approach the counter. The British fish and chip method remains rather more traditional, and celebrates its 150th anniversary next year, despite an ongoing argument about where exactly the first shop opened. It was either Joseph Malin's in East London or Mr Lee's in Oldham, in 1860, the year after Dickens's Parisian discovery. But boom time for the chip really began with the invention of the mechanical potato peeler in 1920. By 1927, the UK boasted 35,000 fish and chip shops, often operated from a converted living room, which must have given the rest of the house a distinctive fragrance.

US fries and UK chips are ostensibly side orders, of course, but elsewhere in Europe, fries are given due prominence. The popular "frieten" from Belgium and The Netherlands are slightly bigger than their US counterparts and cut from fresh potatoes, to indiscriminate lengths. Served from pavement kiosks, the frites are fried twice on site for a particularly crisp outside and soft inside. Then come the sauces.

As John Travolta memorably revealed in the film Pulp Fiction, the Dutch "drown" their fries in mayonnaise, but are also fond of peanut sauce, a recipe culled from their old colony, Indonesia. The Belgians enjoy a sizeable serving of mayo, too, and love to serve their fries with a huge bowl of mussels - though it is the French city of Lyon that the annual moules-frites festival takes place each September.

So proud are the Belgians of their frite-making, in fact, that they've opened a museum devoted to the art. It debuted in Bruges last year and is housed in a beautiful old medieval building, although the new inhabitants aren't to everyone's taste. "This one guy came in and started screaming: 'You can't make the Frietmuseum out of this building!'" recalls the museum's daytime host, Justin Duprez. "A lot of people come in thinking it's a church."

It works on a similar wait-wait-reward system as the classic British shop, but with added culture. First there's a history of the potato, then a run-through of how the frites came into being, and finally - the best part - a trip downstairs for a cooking-then-eating session. "We are very proud of our frites; some people eat them two, three times a week," says Duprez of his compatriots. "People come here and say it was the French, and especially the Dutch people, they have their own explanation for how they invented the fry. But we're proud to be the inventor of the chip."

Belgium has a reputation for high-quality culinary exports, and their slightly classier fries are catching on elsewhere. As well as the new Abu Dhabi restaurant, there are shops as far afield as Turkey, Malaysia and Singapore, while fans travel from across the US to visit the famous Pommes Frites store in New York, which nestles between numerous other fast-food outlets but attracts a more discerning customer.

Britain's attitude to its national dish has become rather more complicated recently. Still worth an impressive £1.2 billion (Dh7 bn) a year, the industry now fights to entice a public looking for healthier mealtime options and a younger generation attracted to the bigger chains. And so, in order to generate a little excitement, the excellently named Potato Council has come up with National Chip Week. From February 15-21 next year it will attempt to put chips on everyone's lips, with much positive spin pouring forth.

For example, one portion of British chips has nine times more vitamin C than a slice of pizza and contains less fat than a prawn mayonnaise sandwich, according to the Potato Council. The mysterious organisation is also keen to point out that when Michelle Obama visited London earlier this year, she treated her daughters to a fish and chip supper. Her love of fries knows no borders. British chips also contain less fat than the common French fry, as there's more fluffy middle and less of the crispy shell that harbours much of the bad stuff. Many UK eateries more than make up for the fatty shortfall, though, offering chips with a congealed layer of cheese on top. Apart from the classic mouth-puckering tang of salt and malt vinegar, ketchup is the most popular sauce, as is the case in the States, but there are curious regional variations: gravy and garishly coloured mushy peas in the north of England, mayonnaise in the south, and the strangely compelling "salt and sauce" in Edinburgh, a sort of sour, glutinous mix of brown sauce and vinegar to be found nowhere else in Britain.

Scotland's chippies are now famous for far more than their deep-fried tatties, however. As a gimmick, several shops got creative with their chip oil a few years back, battering everything from pizzas to chocolate bars, which hardly helped dispel Scotland's image as Europe's unhealthiest nation. The deep-fried Mars Bar has become its national dish as far as the rest of Britain is concerned. French fries have also become a weighty issue in the US, where they are curiously classified as fresh vegetables, which skews the figures somewhat: fries now account for a quarter of all "fresh vegetables" consumed. The major fry manufacturers have taken steps to make their products healthier, but often with unfortunate side effects. The attempt to lower saturated fats by using partially hydrogenated oils led to an increase in trans fats, which are even worse, while the introduction of low-fat alternatives have usually been short-lived. As the prominent writer and sociologist Malcolm Gladwell mused in 2001, warning some people of the fats inherent in fries may have the opposite effect.

"When it comes to junk food, we seem to follow an implicit script that powerfully biases the way we feel about food," said Gladwell, citing a revealing study of how kids reacted to food warnings. "We like fries not in spite of the fact that they're unhealthy, but because of it." Fat-fingered children rummaging in greasy paper bags has become an international image of obesity, but there is one sure-fire way to stop kids overdosing on fries: give them jobs in the industry. Does Duprez from the Frietmuseum ever have some sneaky McDonald's on the way home, for example?

"No, no, no, I don't eat fries any more," he laughs. "When you start working here you practically eat them every day, but after a couple of weeks you are very happy to see a nice dish filled with lettuce." Whatever you call them, then, wherever they're from and however they're prepared, these contentious cuts of potato should be treated as rare delicacies. That first chip sensation just isn't the same when it's from your third bag of the day.