In the UK and North America they are often eaten grilled for breakfast. In the UK, kippers, along with other preserved fish such as the bloater, 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 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...". One example of this legendary origin can be found in the story of John Woodger at Seahouses in Northumberland, England, around 1843, in which kippering happened accidentally, when fish for processing was left overnight in a room with a smoking stove. The legend is known to be false, because the origin of the word kipper is Old English; the English philologist and ethnographer, Walter William Skeat, derives it from the Old English, kippian, to spawn. It is known that 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. Thomas Nashe writes in 1599 about a fisherman from Lothingland in the Great Yarmouth area similarly discovering about smoking herring by accident.
As a verb, to kipper, means to preserve by rubbing with salt or other spices before drying in the open air or in smoke. So, beef, or other meat, preserved in the same fashion can reasonably be called "kippered."
In the United Kingdom, kippers are most often served at breakfast. 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.
A kipper is also sometimes referred to as a "red herring", although particularly strong curing is required to produce a truly red kipper. This term can be dated to the late Middle Ages as quoted here c1400 Femina (Trin-C B.14.40) 27: 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.
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 off kippers.
Kippers today are extremely popular in the Isle of Man where thousands are produced annually in the town of Peel where two kipper houses smoke herring and export them to the world: Moore's Kipper Yard and Devereau and Son A kipper meal is known as tatties and herrin in the Scottish Lowlands and spuds and herrin in the Isle of Man, where kippers are usually served with potatoes and buttered bread.
Mallaig, the once busiest herring port in Europe is famous for its traditionally smoked kippers. Today only one traditional smokehouse remains. J. Lawrie and sons or "Jaffy's" as many may know them are a family run smokehouse on the west coast of Scotland.
Another Highland kipper producer is the traditional family business of Forsyth Hamilton, run for many years from their smokery behind the family house near Ardrishaig at the side of Loch Fyne, Argyll. Though Forsyth has since died, the business is carried on by his family. Forsyth Hamilton's prides itself in having always used locally caught Loch Fyne herring for their kippers, which they strongly believe make the most succulent kippers. Such is the kudos of Loch Fyne kippers that Scottish fishmongers often display kippers as being Loch Fyne kippers, which have never seen Loch Fyne or possibly even the West Coast. The true Loch Fyne kipper is recognisable to the trained eye as being smaller than other kippers, being soft, juicy and oily rather than dry-looking and having a pale, golden colour and a pleasant, rather than sharp, smoky smell. The flavour is deliciously smoky but not strong or acrid. One idiosyncrasy of Forsyth Hamilton's in the past has been, if you're a nice customer, to count 3 as a pair, rather than 2.
The small village of Craster in Northumberland, England, is world famous for its herring kippers which are still made in traditional smokehouses. The only difference is that the fish themselves now come from the Atlantic, instead of local waters.
The town of Hastings in East Sussex England is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council as producing sustainably-fished herring. During the October-January season the herrings are smoked with oak chips at Rock-a-Nore Fisheries, opposite the fish market, to produce MSC-certified kippers. These are sold locally and supplied to nearby Judges Bakery where they are used in place of pork in a variation on traditional sausage rolls and sold as the 'Rock-a-Nore Roll'.