It is that time of year again. Easter. For some reason Easter is celebrated in South Africa almost like Thanksgiving in The United States; Lots of family gatherings and lots of food.
Perhaps it has much to do with being the end of the harvest season. Us city- and seaward oriented folks tend to get somewhat dislodged from Mother Earth and the seasons. But the religious festivals help to keep us in line with the seasons.
For one, I know this festival is very close to the first equinox of the year which falls on 21-22 March. That is when the sun crosses the equator on its way to the northern hemisphere for their summer. It is also the first star gate of the year for some religions.
But here it is Easter. Time for wonderful celebrations and always accompanied with good food and wine. The Cape is no exception and Mother Nature played along very nicely this year and provided lots of good fishing recently. This played magnificently into the tradition to have pickled fish and bread for a picnic lunch in the balmy autumn weather here in the Cape Town area.
I am not a fisherman, so I went to the local fish market by the jetty and bought a fish. Pickled fish appears to be like South African potjiekos, a very personal dish with jealously guarded recipes.
Luckily for us, not all recipes are so closely guarded and we have the famous Cass Abrahams, who published her recipe for pickled fish. This one is special also because it is one of the very traditional Cape Malay dishes, steeped in history.
For me, this was the perfect opportunity to test the Cape Malay style spiciness. The spice mix is simple, the preparation easy and the waiting time forever. I did not even bother doing an internet search, as I had a proper reference handy right on my bookshelf: Cass Abrahams cooks Cape Malay, by Cass Abrahams. The book is available from Amazon books. This recipe is adapted from this book.
This dish is normally made using cheap fish. The book calls for snoek, which in other parts of the world is called queen mackerel. However, any fish will do. Especially game fish as they have firmer flesh. The recipe may be made by frying the salted fish in butter or in a light batter. It does not make a difference. I opted for the plain frying in light oil as per the recipe. The dish also calls for vinegar, for which I used apple cider vinegar. This gave a very fruity taste to the dish and I had to add a little regular vinegar to get the acidity levels up. The sugar is added to your own taste, so take care. It is easy to have too much sugar. You can always add some later when the dish has cured for a day or two.
The solid ingredients need to be submerged in the pickle. If not, add a little vinegar and turn the whole lot around. This will get the bottom pieces to the top and allow the top ones some better soaking and curing. Be careful not to break the pieces of fish, else you end up with flaked fish in brine.
Very important: The skin needs to be taken off game fish. The brine or pickle will not penetrate the skin and thus leave your fish not cured and tasting bland. I tend to always skin the fish. You may do this by soaking the cuts in boiling water for a minute or so. The skin will then come off easily. The size of the cuts does not matter. However, I like to have all the cuts with at least one dimension under my control. This means I cut all the pieces to the same thickness, which, in my case, is about 20mm or ¾ inch. This will ensure a similar curing time for all the cuts. Over-curing does not matter, but under-curing does. And make sure the onions are properly cooked, otherwise you end up with very crunchy bits! The onions may be fried in butter before adding to the pickle, if one so prefers.
So here goes.
1 kg game fish. I used yellowtail
2 large onions, sliced into rings
5 thumbs garlic, mashed
250 ml vinegar
125 ml water
10 ml coriander powder
10 ml cumin powder (jeera)
15 ml masala
5 ml turmeric
2 bay leaves
1 ml peppercorns
Sugar to taste. I used brown sugar
Salt the fish and fry until done. I did mine in batches. Keep these to the side and keep the frying oil. Add the fluids and the dry ingredients, except the sugar, to a saucepan and set to boil. Turn the heat down and simmer for a few minutes until the onions are translucent but still firm. Add sugar to taste.
Pour the hot sauce over the fish and ensure that every piece is properly coated with the pickle. Allow to cool and set into the refrigerator for three to four days. This will allow the flavours to develop and help the fish and onions to cure. Turn the lot every day to get the pickle soaking in properly.
This dish goes well with an artisan loaf of bread, real butter and an off-dry white wine.
Authored by Johan Zietsman
Last updated on 2015-03-29