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A kipper is a whole herring, a small, oily fish, that has been split in butterfly fashion from tail to head along the dorsal ridge, gutted, salted or pickled, and cold smoked over smouldering woodchips (typically oak).
In the United Kingdom, Japan, and some North American regions they are often eaten for breakfast. In the UK, kippers, along with other preserved fish such as the bloater and buckling, were also once commonly enjoyed as a high tea or supper treat; most popularly with inland and urban working-class populations before World War II.
The English philologist and ethnographer Walter William Skeat derives the word from the Old English kippian, to spawn. The origin of the word has various parallels, such as Icelandic kippa which means "to pull, snatch" and the German word kippen which means "to tilt, to incline". Similarly, the English kipe denotes a basket used to catch fish. Another theory traces the word kipper to the kip, or small beak, that male salmon develop during the breeding season.
As a verb, kippering ("to kipper") means to preserve by rubbing with salt or other spices before drying in the open air or in smoke. Originally applied to the preservation of surplus fish (particularly those known as "kips," harvested during spawning runs), kippering has come to mean the preservation of any fish, poultry, beef or other meat in like manner. The process is usually enhanced by cleaning, filleting, butterflying or slicing the food to expose maximum surface area to the drying and preservative agents.
The exact origin of kippers is unknown, though fish have been slit, gutted and smoked since time immemorial. According to Mark Kurlansky, "Smoked foods almost always carry with them legends about their having been created by accident—usually the peasant hung the food too close to the fire, and then, imagine his surprise the next morning when …". For instance Thomas Nashe wrote in 1599 about a fisherman from Lothingland in the Great Yarmouth area who discovered smoking herring by accident. Another story of the accidental invention of kipper is set in 1843, with John Woodger of Seahouses in Northumberland, when fish for processing was left overnight in a room with a smoking stove. These stories and others are known to be apocryphal because the word "kipper" long predates this. Smoking and salting of fish—in particular of spawning salmon and herring which are caught in large numbers in a short time and can be made suitable for edible storage by this practice predates 19th century Britain and indeed written history, probably going back as long as humans have been using salt to preserve food. Kippered fish were also eaten in Germany and the custom reached Scandinavia in the Middle Ages.
A kipper is also sometimes referred to as a red herring, although particularly strong curing is required to produce a truly red kipper. The term appears in a mid-13th century poem by the Anglo-Norman poet Walter of Bibbesworth, "He eteþ no ffyssh But heryng red." Samuel Pepys used it in his diary entry of 28 February 1660 "Up in the morning, and had some red herrings to our breakfast, while my boot-heel was a-mending, by the same token the boy left the hole as big as it was before."
The dyeing of kippers was introduced as an economy measure in the First World War by avoiding the need for the long smoking processes. This allowed the kippers to be sold quickly, easily and for a substantially greater profit. Kippers were originally dyed using a coal tar dye called Brown FK (the FK is an abbreviation of "For Kippers"), Kipper Brown or Kipper Dye. Today, kippers are usually brine dyed using a natural annato dye, giving the fish a deeper orange/yellow colour. European Community legislation limits the acceptable daily intake (ADI) of Brown FK to 0.15 mg/kg. Not all fish caught are suitable for the dyeing process, with mature fish more readily sought, because the density of their flesh improves the absorption of the dye. An orange kipper is a kipper that has been dyed orange.
Kippers from the Isle of Man and some Scottish producers are not dyed: The smoking time is extended in the traditional manner.
"Cold smoked" fish, that have not been salted for preservation, need to be cooked before being eaten safely (they can be boiled, fried, grilled, jugged or roasted, for instance). "Kipper snacks," (see below) are precooked and may be eaten without further preparation.
In the United Kingdom, kippers are often served for breakfast, tea or dinner. In the United States, where kippers are less commonly eaten than in the UK, they are almost always sold as either canned "kipper snacks" or in jars found in the refrigerated foods section.
In Haiti, kippers are eaten with scrambled eggs for breakfast or mixed with pasta or rice.
Kippers are produced in the Isle of Man and exported around the world. Thousands are produced annually in the town of Peel, where two kipper houses, Moore's Kipper Yard (founded 1882) and Devereau and Son (founded 1884), smoke and export herring.
Mallaig, once the busiest herring port in Europe, is famous for its traditionally smoked kippers, as well as Stornoway kippers and Loch Fyne kippers. The harbour village of Craster in Northumberland is famed for Craster kippers, which are prepared in a local smokehouse, sold in the village shop and exported around the world.
Kipper season refers (particularly among fairground workers, market workers, taxi drivers and the like) to any lean period in trade, particularly the first three or four months of the year; possibly a reference to the above usage, or to the need to live frugally during such a period, by (for instance) living on kippers.
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