Pickled fish for the Easter table

2015-04-05 15:00

Whether made by Christians or Muslims, whites, blacks or coloureds, there’s always an abundance of pickled fish over the Easter weekend

Easter is a very foodie festival. All over the world, there are hot cross buns and chocolate eggs and roast lamb galore.

Only in South Africa does pickled fish come to the Easter table.

There are pockets of fish picklers nationwide, but the oldest records of this culinary custom are from the Cape – Lady Anne Barnard, after visiting Meerlust farm in 1798, wrote that she was served “fish of the nature of cod, pickled with turmarick [sic]” – and Capetonians are particularly fanatical about the food.

Obviously, everything at Easter is inherently a matter of life and death, but many Cape Town cooks would argue that the tradition of eating “ingelegde” (pickled) fish at this time of year is much more important than that.

The unromantic argue that the practice of pickling fish dates back to a time when no fishing boats went out over the Easter weekend – so no fresh fish was available – a historical lack of domestic refrigeration and the (sadly long gone) cheapness of fish in the Cape, which made it an affordable staple food.

Others assert that there are religious roots to the pickling practice.

Good Friday church services have historically involved Cape Christians spending most of the day in their houses of worship and returning home at 3pm (the time at which Jesus is presumed to have died) to break their fast with pickled fish and hot cross buns. Some link the recipes to general fish on Friday and Lenten abstinence rituals.

Cape culinary icon Cass Abrahams remembers that “my grandmother believed nobody should cook on Good Friday – and no stove should be lit. So, she would make pickled fish on the Wednesday before the Easter weekend and there would be enough to last till Easter Monday.”

There are those who make Biblical connections.

In Luke 24, Jesus uses fish to prove his resurrection. He appears to his disciples “and while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them ‘do you have anything to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish and he took it and ate it in their presence.” As to why there is vinegar in the recipe, John 19, which describes Roman soldiers offering a vinegar-soaked sponge to Jesus on the cross, is cited.

It might seem like Christian cuisine, but the Cape culinary culture has always been uniquely inclusive, and many Muslims also make pickled fish at this time of year. There are long established “English” (i.e. Christian) and “Muslim” recipe variants within the coloured community. There are also distinct white Afrikaner and Xhosa pickled fish recipes.

There are occasional radio talk shows and Twitter commentaries as to whether Islamic participation in this essentially Christian food festival is blasphemous, but basically everyone is eating it over the Easter weekend.

Abrahams (who converted to Islam upon marriage) recalls that, historically, “Muslims went to camp at the Kramat at Makassar over the Easter weekend and pickled fish was what everyone ate”.

In Cape Town, they read so much more than spices and vinegar into their recipes. It is not a question of which recipe is “best”. Done well, any one of these recipes can brighten the taste and texture of fish. Done badly, they can be so brutally acidic that all succulence and flavour is obliterated.

The differences seem minor to an outsider, but they carry deep and divisive subplots. George Bernard Shaw once wrote that “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”.

In Cape Town, it’s fish that serves up social splits. In the past, there were pickled fish competitions to settle such scores, but these seem to have given way to a general muttering about the mistakes of others.

Everyone uses onions, but there is much debate as to what to do with them. Abrahams says they must be “sliced and separated into rings, never chopped and certainly never fried.

The moment you tell me you fry the onions, I know you are not a good pickled-fish maker. Lightly boiled so that they have a crunch still, that is what you must do. When I was young, my husband’s granny told me that the onions must go ‘crick crick’ in your mouth.”

Conversely, Xhosa cooks tend to argue that the secret to their success was the gentle frying of onions. One went so far as to tell City Press that “frying onions is the smell of Easter”.

Afrikaner pickled-fish makers don’t fry their onions, but they do leave out the allspice that characterises Muslim recipes.

“English” recipes are much milder, while Afrikaners use commercial curry powders rather than masala and have a much heavier hand with the sugar than either English or Muslim fish picklers.

At the risk of engendering the wrath of all Capetonian cooks, I would argue that pickled fish is Cape Town’s soul food and that it is essentially a creole creation combining Asian, African and European elements.

This is no soppy kumbaya cuisine story where we all discover our inner simunye around a pot of pickled fish. Rather, the similarities and differences are marinated in the vicious circles of coming together and splitting apart engendered by slavery, colonialism and apartheid in the Cape.

Cass Abraham’s Muslim pickled fish

.1kg snoek cut into portions, chopped

.125ml water

.250ml vinegar

.10ml ground coriander

.10ml ground cumin

.15ml masala

.5ml turmeric

.2 bay leaves, 4 allspice berries, 4 cloves

.2ml pepper corns

.Sugar to taste

.2 large onions, sliced

.5 cloves garlic

Salt the fish and fry in vegetable oil until cooked. Remove with slotted spoon and set aside in a separate bowl. Retain oil. Place rest of ingredients except sugar in a pot and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer until onions are transparent but haven’t lost crunch.

Add sugar to taste. Pour warm sauce and oil over fish, making sure each portion of the fish is covered. Allow to cool and store in a cool place.

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