It’s an issue that provokes passionate debate and bitter interstate arguments. At the heart of it is the fish and chip shop staple, potato slices fried in batter. Are they potato cakes, potato fritters or scallops? It depends on where you live. In Victoria, Tasmania and, apparently, the Northern Territory, they’re potato cakes. In New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, Western Australia and Queensland, they’re potato scallops. Or often just scallops. And if you’re in South Australia, they’re potato fritters. A map published on Reddit claims to have the geography sorted.
Looking into the history of all this makes things even murkier. The terms “potato cake” and “potato scallop” referred to very different dishes in days gone by. For example, back in 1905, The Bundaberg Mail and Burnett Advertiser gave a recipe for potato scallops:
Boil two pounds of potatoes, dry well, and pound in a mortar, adding three ounces of butter, half-a-gill of cream or melted butter sauce, and seasoning of pepper, salt and nutmeg. When quite smooth, butter some scallop shells, put in a teaspoonful of mixture, brush over with egg, and bake till brown; serve with watercress.
Similar recipes, some suggesting patty tins or even pastry cases as alternative containers, crop up over the following two decades. Then there is the dish of sliced potatoes, dressed with a creamy sauce and layered in a pie dish, which is known as scalloped potatoes or (sometimes) potato scallop.
Potato cakes have a similarly confused history. Some early references to potato cake refer to afternoon-tea style cakes that just happen to have potato as an ingredient. There’s even a chocolate potato cake. But most refer to patties made from mashed or grated potato bound together with flour or egg and fried – something like the modern hash brown. One particularly elaborate creation was a kind of potato custard made in a breadcrumb-lined mould.
The earliest recipe I have so far found for making what we currently know as the potato cake/scallop/fritter is in the Kalgoorlie Sun in 1920. They called them fritters.
For a family of five, take 6 good-sized potatoes, pare them and cut into slices the long way of the potato, about one-fourth of an inch thick. Next make a batter just stiff enough to stick to potato by taking 3 tablespoons flour, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, and water to mix. Dip each slice of potato in batter and fry in deep fat slowly until a golden brown. Season when served.
The preferred nomenclature seems to have hardened up by the 1930s. In 1930, a Brisbane woman was seeking the recipe for potato scallops “using a batter the same as sold in fish shops”. In 1931, the Model Fish Shop in Adelaide was offering “Something good, Potato Fritters”. While in 1937, Pop’s Fish Shop in Windsor, Melbourne, was advertising “Fried Fish, Chips and Potato Cakes a specialty”. In 1948, a café in Leonora, Western Australia, was promoting potato scallops for children’s school lunches.
I am a Victorian born and bred, so despite the nearly 20 years I spent in New South Wales, they’ll always be potato cakes to me. I relish the stories of those visiting from the northern states ordering “scallops” from a Melbourne chippy, only to look askance at the bundle of shellfish they receive. It works (or fails to work) the other way too, of course.
It’s not clear where the tradition of potato cakes from fish and chip shops originated, but it’s probably Britain. Where they’re called potato scallops. These days, many English fish and chip shops sell an exotic version called Aloo Pakora – a potato cake with Indian spices.
It’s hardly a health food, but there’s no denying that a good potato cake is a thing of joy. Oily, crispy, with a creamy potato heart. There’s even a Facebook page dedicated to its appreciation. Run by a Melbournian, of course.