In Cape Town, South Africa, Easter is all about chocolate eggs, hot cross buns and pickled fish, a local turmeric-hued, sweet and sour favorite, flavored with spices from the Cape of Good Hope’s Malay culinary heritage.
Although pickled fish is closely associated with Easter, the sweet and sour curried dish has little to do with the Christian holiday. Naturally preserved with vinegar, it’s a make-ahead dish that can span South Africa’s four-day Easter weekend, when no matter what your religion is, socializing and relaxing still reign supreme.
In South Africa, pickled fish is most closely linked with the Cape, where it’s on hand in many households as casual food for drop-in visitors and picnicking. Its spicy roots lie in the Cape’s Muslim population, whose ancestors were brought by the Dutch as slaves from the East Indies: from India, Indonesia and Malaya. As author and Cape Malay caterer Cass Abrahams says: “The slaves knew all about spices; and fish is also a big part of Cape culture.”
An Easter staple
In cuisines across the globe, pickling fish was a common and necessary practice before the advent of refrigeration, and each preparation reflected its cuisine’s unique set of ingredients. There are differing opinions about its South African genesis. The earliest written reference that cookbook author Jane-Ann Hobbs has seen comes from Lady Anne Barnard, the Cape’s “First Lady” in the late 1700s, who after visiting a local farm in 1798 wrote that she was served “fish of the nature of cod, pickled with Turmarick.”
While today it’s a much-loved national dish that is available even in upmarket supermarkets, pickled fish is generally homemade and an Easter staple, both for Muslims and Christians. Easter falls at a time of year when fish is both readily available and in great demand, with many Catholics eschewing meat during Lent.
The golden color of curried pickled fish is everywhere at the 150-year-strong Easter weekend gathering at Faure outside the city, where the annual Sheik Yusuf Kramat Festival takes place. Hundreds converge for the long weekend to camp, socialize and visit the shrine to the sheik, credited with establishing Islam in South Africa. While some cooking is done on site, most campers bring covered glass dishes of pickled fish. “We eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with bread thick with butter, rice or rotis,” says Cape Town resident and cook Zainap Masoet, who starts setting up camp at Faure for her extended family five days before the Easter weekend.
One method, many ingredients
As for its preparation, there’s little disagreement about the method, which involves browning fish seasoned with salt and pepper, then cooking onions with spices, before adding vinegar and a little sugar. The mixture is poured over the cooked fish and the dish is refrigerated for two days before eaten. Once pickled, it will last for days outside the refrigerator, say local cooks.
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On the other hand, there is definite banter about the ingredients. In her recipe, Abrahams uses snoek, a meaty and somewhat bony local fish, as does Cape Malay cooking teacher Faldela Tocker, whose aunt taught her how to make the dish. “Once it’s pickled, it needs to sit, for the flavors to develop,” she says.
However, Cape Town tour guide Shireen Narkedien, who regularly takes visitors around the Bo-Kaap, the Cape’s historic Malay Quarter, says the traditional fish is yellowtail, which is what most older people still use. Narkedien only uses bay leaf, turmeric and curry powder and says that the onion should be cooked through and “not too oniony,” while Abrahams uses additional spices as well as garlic, and says the onions should still have some crunch.
The appeal of pickled fish lies as much in the generosity of spirit behind preparing a dish for unexpected visitors as much as it does in its sweet and sour spicy taste. “When I was a child, my mother used to always tell me: ‘You cook for the person who is coming,'” said Narkedien, who describes a time when doors were always open. “When I asked her who that was, she’d say, ‘I don’t know, but it will be someone.'”
Recipe adapted from “Cass Abrahams Cooks Cape Malay.” Used with permission of author.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
2 ¼ pounds snoek, firm-fleshed white fish or mahi mahi, cut into portions
2 large onions, sliced
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup vinegar
½ cup water
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon masala
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 bay leaves
4 cloves of whole allspice
¼ teaspoon peppercorns
Sugar to taste
1. Salt fish and fry in vegetable oil until cooked. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside in a separate bowl; retain oil.
2. Place the rest of the ingredients except sugar in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Turn down heat and simmer until onions are transparent but haven’t lost their crunch.
3. Add sugar to taste and stir to dissolve. Pour warm sauce and oil over fish, making sure that each portion of fish is covered. Allow to cool and refrigerate.
4. Serve with fresh bread and butter.
Main photo: Cape Malay cooking teacher Faldela Tocker, with a dish of pickled fish. “Once it’s pickled, it needs to sit for the flavors to develop,” she says. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone