It is early evening in a small fish and chip takeaway in Glasgow's Gallowgate and Francesco Pia is preparing his latest customer's order. He takes a 51 gram chocolate bar from the back counter, unwraps it, and coats it in a flour-based batter mix, before carefully dropping the item into a large stainless steel deep fat fryer. Less than a minute later, the now battered piece of confectionary sits on a sheet of greaseproof paper, ready for consumption. Some customers may order a side of chips. Most prefer to eat it as it is.
The deep-fried Mars bar is a strictly off-the-menu item at Pia's.
"We don't advertise it," stresses Pia. "We only serve them if people demand it—it's mostly school kids. We maybe sell one or two a week. The Galaxy Caramel is actually the better seller, not many people ask for Mars."
Like many small restaurant owners in Scotland, Francesco is Scots-Italian. He has been in business at the Gallowgate for more than 20 years. Queues at his impeccably clean takeaway can snake out of the door when gigs are staged at the famous Barrowland Ballroom venue across the street or when Celtic FC play at their home stadium in nearby Parkhead.
Fish and chips is no longer the most popular dish at Pia's. Most customers opt for sausage, which is similarly battered before frying. But few regulars would ever consider ordering a chocolate bar cooked in such a manner. Many takeaways in Scotland's largest city refuse to sell them.
"I don't even entertain the idea, it's a flat no. First of all, it is a very expensive thing to make. The chocolate leaks and ruins the oil in the fryer. You can't use it for anything else," says a staff member at Blue Lagoon in Partick, who politely declines to give his name. "It's mainly tourists that ask for them. But these days, people will order anything. I had a kid in with his mum ask for a pizza in a roll. I've been doing this 15 years and that's the first time I've ever heard that."
The deep-fried Mars bar has a level of infamy way beyond almost any other food substance. In an age of novelty oversized portions, televised eating challenges, and triple-decked burgers, this dessert-on-steroids has been the subject of regular newspaper articles and TV news segments since its debut media appearance in 1995, when the dubbed it "Scotland's craziest takeaway."
Researchers from the University of Glasgow carried out a detailed survey of takeaways in the west of Scotland to establish whether the dish was commonly sold, or if was nothing more than urban myth.
I don't even entertain the idea, it's a flat no. First of all, it is a very expensive thing to make. The chocolate leaks and ruins the oil in the fryer. You can't use it for anything else. It's mainly tourists that ask for them.
"We thought they might be fictitious," Dr David Morrison, a consultant in public health medicine, told the BBC. "But the Scottish diet is a major health issue and it's important to know what the facts are. We can now confirm that there is no doubt, the deep fried Mars bar is not just an urban myth."
That was in 2004. More than ten years on, the battered Mars bar retains it greasy grip on the media. It returned to the headlines earlier this month when a similar dish was revealed—by no less a person than out-going Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy—to be on sale in the Scottish Parliament canteen. The mental image of Scots lawmakers drafting legislation while high on a potent mixture of fat and salt was a strong one. "'Now here's a defeat for national stereotypes in Scottish Parliament today," Murphy tweeted along with a picture. "Cooked Mars Bar—not deep fried—but in filo pastry."
A Scottish Parliament spokeswoman confirmed to MUNCHIES that the dish was indeed baked, not fried, and added it was a "one-off" menu idea by catering firm Sodexo.
At a time when the Scottish Government is making huge efforts to improve the nation's health and Scottish chefs are winning plaudits for their cuisine, no one in the industry wants to be reminded of a global symbol for bad eating north of the border.
"It's a relic of the past," explains Catherine Brown, a veteran writer and broadcaster on Scottish food. "It's a leftover symbol of a deep-fried eating culture. It can't damage Scotland's reputation unless it's inferred that it's a staple part of today's everyday diet."
The deep-fried Mars bar became shorthand for Scotland's poor public health ranking in the 1990s, as the country recovered from decades of brutal de-industrialisation.
"Scotland was rated Europe's unhealthiest country," Brown continues. "The short explanation was we were all eating deep-fried Mars bars, but the reality was a much more complex problem to do with urban deprivation, unemployment, and a self-harming culture in the worst-affected areas. Cheap, hot, high-calorie food from the chippie was sustaining and comforting."
Brown, like many others working in Scotland's booming food and drink industry, would prefer attention focused elsewhere.
"There is a movement to make Scottish produce more available locally," she says. "We need to change the culture of exporting all our best foods."
The makers of Mars have also made it plain they are not fans of their product being sold in such a way. The Carron Fish Bar in Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, has long claimed to have invented the deep-fried variety and even considered applying for geographical protected status from the European Union. In 2012, Mars felt compelled to write to the business to voice its concerns. A spokeswoman for Mars declined to comment when asked if the company was still actively discouraging restaurants from deep frying its product.
Far removed from novelty sweet products are a new generation of fish and chip restaurants like Hooked, in Glasgow's Southside. It uses only rapeseed oil—a far healthier alternative to the commonly-used animal fats or palm oils—and receives deliveries of fresh fish daily. All items are made to order.
"I'm a bit of a fish snob," co-owner Harin Bassi cheerfully admits. "I don't like greasy food. Even though I'm from Glasgow, I hated the quality of the average fish and chip shop. My wife was pregnant and was craving fish and chips. We searched for places that served high quality fish cooked in fresh oil and found it impossible."
Bassi is keen to dispel the myth that fried food is inherently bad for you.
"We try to educate customers that fish and chip are much healthier than most takeaway food," he says. "A portion of fish and chips contains less calories and fat than an average pizza or chicken korma."
But so long as some customers demand their chocolate to be fried, it is unlikely that Scotland's fish and chip restaurants will ever shake off their unhealthy reputation.