In pursuit of the perfect pickled fish: tips from a pro chef
When my maternal grandmother, Ma Nani, died, she left a giant, pickled fish-shaped hole in our lives. To my mother, Good Friday is the holiest of days on the Christian calendar – more so than Easter Sunday or Christmas Day – because it’s the day God made the ultimate sacrifice that would change our lives forever. And, while my friends made a head start on Easter bunnies, in my household we celebrated by eating hot cross buns and Ma Nani’s pickled fish.
“Your grandmother made the best pickled fish,” my mom tells me. (“Everyone thinks that of their mother’s pickled fish!” my dad chimes in. On a side note, his favourite pickled fish comes from Faldelah Williams’s The Cape Malay Cookbook.) “That may be true,” my mom acknowledges, “but your grandmother understood how to get the balance just right – sweetness, acidity and spices. You have to get all three right. I never add enough vinegar. I used to watch her make pickled fish, trying to figure it out. She used to fry the fish first – snoek for me because it’s my favourite, kingklip or yellowtail for everyone else – and then fry the onions in the same oil. Not too much oil! That’s the other trick – you don’t want it to be too oily. The closest I’ve come to tasting pickled fish like Ma Nani used to make is yours.” (“High praise!” adds my dad. On a side note, my pickled fish comes from YOU Let’s Cook Volume 1, which doesn’t specify the amount of vinegar and sugar used, so I’ve been experimenting to get it just like my gran’s!)
Chef Keanon Michaels – the owner of Keanon’s Kitchen, a private chef and catering business, and the mastermind behind food truck Lekker Vuil Dite (LVD) – also says the fish and the vinegar are crucial to the success of your pickled fish. Everything he knows about the dish, he learnt from his mother, Cheryl, and here are his top tips.
- Some people prefer white vinegar in their pickling liquid, others prefer brown. My personal preference is brown vinegar.
- It’s essential to use a fish with firm flesh. It will hold the pickle best and have a better texture for eating. Refrain from flaky fish, like hake, as it will break up and become a mushy mess. The best fish for pickled fish is snoek, yellowtail and kabeljou. Traditionally, bony fish such as harders or snoek were used. People tend to go with their fish of choice, but I like to respect tradition.
- Use fresh bay leaves instead of dry. It packs way more flavour and elevates the taste of your pickle.
- A good pickled fish should always have the fish as the hero. The onions and the sauce should never be more than the fish, in my opinion.
- Don’t forget to serve freshly baked spicy hot cross buns with your pickled fish!
NOW WATCH: How to make pickled fish