The scoop on fish and chips

By Andre Hueber

When Te Awhina Arahanga discovered her friend's children had requested sushi at a fish and chip shop, she thought it an indictment on society. But it gave her the idea of studying the social history around the famous Kiwi takeaway.

The Christchurch author has been selected for the Maori writer's residency at the Michael King Writers' Centre in Devonport, and will complete her food-related assignment before writing a collection of short stories. She moves into the centre - the former Signalman's house on Mount Victoria - in May.

"I grew up in Taumutu, [64km] from Christchurch, and fish and chips were a rarity. When we got it we were overcome with joy," she says.

Arahanga believes big fast-food chains such as McDonald's and KFC are taking over, and family time at the wharf with fish and chips is slowly disappearing.

She has charted the history of the meal from the 1500s - when potatoes were thought to cause syphilis and associated with rampant sex - to the arrival of the first Europeans in New Zealand.

"They were wary of indigenous food and often imported dried and salted fish. It took a while for them to realise they wouldn't die."

She remembers stores that had a single Space Invaders arcade machine in the corner, where only fish and chips were sold, "plus maybe burgers if you're lucky".

Trying to establish the town with the oldest fish and chippery in New Zealand has proved a bone of contention ("wars could be started"), but Arahanga has narrowed it down between Invercargill and Greymouth.

Handy access to coal was required to burn the fat, and that was more available in Greymouth.

It's been more than a decade since Ms Arahanga won the Huia Short Story award, in 2001, for her story Mushrooms, and she applied for the writer's residency to focus on her craft without distractions.

She is planning to write stories set in the late 1970s and early 80s, the period in which she grew up, focusing on a young Maori woman called Rangimarie.

"It's a time when it wasn't fashionable to be Maori, nor was it politically correct to understand or identify with Maori," she says.

She said by the 1990s it was "hip" to be Maori, and there was a big renaissance with the birth of Kohanga Reo, Kura Kaupapa, Maori in universities, Maori TV and radio stations.

"I was unlucky to be part of the lost generation where the language wasn't taught or spoken." Her professional background is in heritage and she draws on that in her writing. She sits on the Aoraki Conservation Board and recently worked on projects at the Aoraki Visitor Centre and Kaikoura Museum.

The 46-year-old has been living in Auckland since her Christchurch flat was damaged in the February quake, and says she hadn't realised how stressed she was until she moved.

"I realised I was psychologically damaged. Every time a truck drives past I feel myself flinch.

"I constantly worry about where I park my car and whether a building will fall on it."

Chip Bits

-The Encyclopedia of New Zealand Te Ara says although other convenience foods have become commonplace in New Zealand since 1980, they have not ousted fish and chips as the nation's preferred takeaway.

-New Zealanders chomp through about seven million servings of hot chips a week.

-The 2011 Best Chip Shop competition featured a number from the Auckland region. Oceanz Seafood in Botany and Oceanz Seafood in Whangaparaoa were national finalists. Regional finalists were Ivan's Takeaway in Glenfield; Kipper's Takeaway in Orewa; Big J's Takeaways in Mt Wellington; Oceanz Botany Downs; Fish Shop, Glen Eden; Chip Shop, Royal Oak and Westgate Takeaways, Massey.

Chips were judged through mystery judging, public text voting and fat analysis, with winners decided by a panel of judges who also looked at shop cleanliness and service.

Your top picks

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- The Aucklander

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