‘It’s hard to get wrong – it’s chips, bread and sauce!’ Why chip butties are having a moment in Australia

<span>Carb-on-carb wonder: the chip butty served at Glory Us cafe in Melbourne, where the 10mm-thick fries are stacked ‘like a Tetris tower’.</span><span>Photograph: Nadir Kinani/The Guardian</span>
Carb-on-carb wonder: the chip butty served at Glory Us cafe in Melbourne, where the 10mm-thick fries are stacked ‘like a Tetris tower’.Photograph: Nadir Kinani/The Guardian

There are worldwide variations on stuffing bread with hot chips – from Burger King Japan’s fries-filled “fake burger” to the Turkish patso and South African Gatsby, as well as the chip butty, apparently invented in 19th-century England.

In Australia, the chip butty might spark memories of camping trips, the school tuck shop (pre-healthy canteen era) or bygone milk bars.

And though the healthy canteen era may have nixed the sandwich from schools, a recent wave of Australian cafes has put the British carb-on-carb wonder on its menus – and it has proved popular with diners during the cost-of-living crisis.

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At Splash cafe in Sydney’s Petersham, the chip butty is a top seller. Angular potato strips are meticulously slotted between white sandwich bread that’s twice-buttered and toasted until golden. Inside, the longest chips form a sturdy foundation layer, with the shorter ones banked on top.

“When I visited Japan, I fell in love with the way they approached white-bread sandwiches: super thick-cut sweet white bread and stacked fillings that have an appealing cross-section,” chef Mitch Jones says. “I took that approach when developing Splash’s chip butty.”

The accompanying curry sauce, earthy and spicy-sweet, evokes the flavours enjoyed by his English grandmother.

In nearby Camperdown, chef Brendan King plates a chip “putty” with butter chicken sauce at Derrel’s, the Anglo-Indian canteen named after his grandfather. The chunky 13mm-thick fries are loaded into a pav – a brioche-like bun that’s toasted in ghee and “used a lot in Mumbai” for sponging up curries, King says.

Unlike Splash’s precision-built sandwich, the chips flop loosely from the bread and are slathered with “butter chicken” sauce, which, despite the name, is vegetarian-friendly: it has the sweet kiss of tomato as well as the unshakeable heat of green chilli and Kashmiri chilli powder. “It’s definitely a messy dish but I think that’s what people like: it’s a bit of fun.”

So does the name “chip putty” refer to a regional Indian dish?

“No, it was just a complete mistake. When we were doing the menu, I spelt it wrong,” King says with a laugh. “We thought ‘let’s just run with it’.”

At Splash, co-owner Michael Ico nearly nixed the chip butty and curry sauce on their menu upon learning about Derrel’s version. But he relented when he realised the two sandwiches would be different.

“Ours is more – what do you call it? – bogan,” Ico says.

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At Melbourne’s Glory Us cafes in Fitzroy North and Strathmore, the chip butties by co-owner Tori Bicknell are all smiles. With a house-made “HP sauce” she slow-cooks for three days with caramelised onions, whole apples and 12 spices, she squiggles cheery portraits between the sandwich layers.

Also piled in there: 10mm-thick chips that are stacked “like a Tetris tower”. You can also request an optional fried egg. “It makes a hell of a mess when we cut it in half. But it’s certainly worth it,” she says.

It’s a throwback to her family’s ritual of eating chip butties two or three times a week. The kids in the house would squirt various condiments together to make “a weird brown sauce” for their potato-packed sandwiches.

“My mother was British,” Bicknell says, which explains her cultural connection to the butty – the sandwich was apparently invented in Lancashire in the country’s second-ever fish and chip shop, circa 1863.

But like any beloved staple, there are territorial fights over ownership. Yorkshire also claims a strong link to the sandwich: its name comes from local slang for “butter” and Sheffield United’s football anthem has been The Greasy Chip Butty Song since the 1980s.

Many people who order the sandwich at Glory Us are British and over 55. Similarly, Ico says he hears from an “older generation” of Splash customers who recall eating chip butties at school. Not that you’d find the sandwich – in its old-school or modern iterations – on canteen menus these days.

“Deep-fried foods are banned across Australia according to each state and territory,” says Shadia Djakovic from Healthy Kids Association, a not-for-profit advice group for New South Wales school canteens. (But if anyone’s looking for a workaround, chip butties could be served to kids if the potatoes are baked or roasted, she says.)

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Though chip butties are literally a thing of the past at canteens, the pull of nostalgia is hard to deny. Bicknell credits the trend for retro foods – which has also led to the salad sandwich’s recent glow-up – for its revival.

For Ico, he suspects deep-fried chips stuffed into white bread has an industrialised simplicity that people respond to. “Why do I feel like this processed trash?” he asks. “It’s nostalgic, not just through memories in my head but through my stomach.”

Ico concedes: “It’s a lot of chips, it’s a lot of starch in one meal.” But that generosity is likely why diners are connecting to the sandwich, particularly during a cost-of-living crisis. A chip butty is a filling meal that’s budget-friendly for both venue operators and diners – Derrel’s putty is $10, while Splash’s version starts at $8. The Glory Us version is closer to $20, but that’s because the HP sauce takes half a week to make.

In 2022, Dr James Hind, a statistician from Nottingham Trent University, undertook a 2,000-person study and concluded that 12 chips was the perfect portion for the sandwich: just enough to melt the butter and soften the bread.

Although Jones, King and Bicknell respect the science of Hind’s methods, they think it goes against the laid-back spirit of the sandwich. The no-brainer appeal of the chip butty is exactly the point. “It’s hard to get it wrong – it’s like chips, bread, sauce!” King says.