I’ve been living in the Cape for 12 years and have yet to make my own pickled fish at Easter. This might sound inconsequential for those who reside elsewhere so let me explain.
The vinegary sweet, spicy and tangy turmeric-laden fish dish (typically eaten on Good Friday with hot cross buns) isn’t a staple Easter meal in my family but I would argue that, to a degree, it is part of my food culture as a South African and a Capetonian. And if you’re wondering, yes – I’ve been watching David Chang’s new Netflix series, Ugly Delicious, that had me thinking about this a lot.
Pickled fish (‘ingelegde vis’ in Afrikaans) has deep historical roots and eating it on Good Friday is a cherished and revered tradition in the Cape that dates back centuries. It’s a simple dish that tells a unique story of social customs and çooking practices that have been passed down through generations. A thread in the modern-day South African food tapestry.
Good Friday is when Cape Christians spend the day in worship until 3 pm (the time at which Jesus is presumed to have died) and then sit down to enjoy pickled fish with hot cross buns.
Even though the dish has strong Christian associations, you’ll find that many Muslims also make pickled fish at this time of year and like a lot of South African recipes – there are countless variations on the theme.
Some say the recipe was originally created by Cape Malay fishermen in an effort to preserve the catch for as long as possible (bear in mind there was no such thing as refrigeration back then). And many believe that one shouldn’t do any cooking on Good Friday and no stove should be turned on, which meant you would make the fish on the Wednesday before the Easter weekend and there would be enough to last until Monday.
Pickling is a nifty preservation method in cooking that’s come back into fashion again. Just look at any high-end restaurant menu and you’ll see a lot of pickled ingredients. Making the fish in advance also allows it to develop all those deliciously spicy flavours. One can always buy pickled fish at a local supermarket around Easter time but now I’m starting to feel such a shortcut would be sacrilegious and would completely strip away the cherished ritual that brought us to eating Easter pickled fish in the first place.
So this year – I’m making my own as an homage to this time-honoured South African food item.
Seeing as I don’t have a genealogical recipe that’s been passed down, I’ve had to rely on a few trusty experts about how to cook it as authentically as possible.
1. Firstly – what fish you use is deemed extremely important in the Cape community where traditionally yellowtail (or snoek) is always purchased from large fishmongers like Fish for Africa.
2. Next – spices! While some people like Bo Kaap tour guide, Shireen Narkedien, use just bay leaf, turmeric and curry powder for their fish, other spices are also used but it’s frowned upon to use commercial spices that come in little bottles. Spices should come from a traditional spice merchant. Think places like Atlas Trading or Cape Spice Emporium.
3. According to Cape Malay cookbook author, Cass Abrahams, onions should be sliced in rings (circles) and not finely chopped.
4. Don’t ever fry the onions. This seems like a real no-no. Rather, you should boil the onions with the spices – so you retain their “crunchiness”.
3. The sauce should be made separately says my colleague, Fadia Salie. Add turmeric, onion rings, vinegar, gloves, all spiced, bay leaves, salt, and sugar to 2 Litres of water and boil until the water is reduced by half. You would then add the cooked fish to this and allow it to wallow in the spicy, tangy juice for a good few days.
It’s common to enjoy pickled fish with hot cross buns (that’s a story for another day!) but Fadia says, ‘it’s best served cold with freshly baked and buttered bread which I think is what I will do.