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September 30, 2010

Recipe: Extra-lemony Cape Malay-style pickled fish

pickled fish

Extra-lemony Cape Malay-style pickled fish

Jane-Anne Hobbs is a freelance journalist, editor and author; a cook, food writer and recipe developer; and a mother of three. She lived in Johannesburg for the past 17 years but recently moved, with her family, to Hout Bay.

See also: National Braai Day recipe: Cape Malay-style lamb sosaties

Consisting of firm-fleshed white fish soaked in a turmeric yellow, oniony, lightly curried pickle, this dish has a long and noble history as one of the staples of Cape Malay cooking. The basic recipe has remained largely unchanged over at least two centuries, but its pedigree is doubtless older than that, because the dish was brought to the Cape from the East during the earliest days of the slave trade.

There isn’t space here to do justice to the long and painful saga of slavery at the Cape, or to the culinary heritage of the descendants of slaves. If you’re interested, do visit the Cape Slavery Heritage blog, an encyclopaedic site packed with fascinating stories and many compelling images. Patric Tariq Mellét, the author of the blog, has written about his own memories of pickled fish in response this recipe; read his post here.

The earliest written reference to Cape pickled fish I know of comes from Lady Anne Barnard who, after visiting Meerlust farm in 1798, wrote that she was served “fish of the nature of God, pickled with Turmarick”.

Hildagonda J Duckitt, one of South Africa’s most esteemed historical cookbook authors, provides a recipe for sole pickled with mango relish, onions, 12 small chillies and a full quart of vinegar in her famous Hilda’s “Where Is It?” of Recipes (1891).

Although the key ingredients of this well-loved staple have remained unchanged over time, there are hundreds of different recipes: Each family has its own particular favourite, often a closely guarded formula.

In their brilliantly instructive book Cookery in Southern Africa: Traditional and Today (1970), Lesley Faull and Vida Heard give no fewer than four different recipes, of varying complexity, for ingelegde (“pickled”) fish.

Faldela Williams, author of the definitive reference The Cape Malay Cookbook (1988), remembers this recipe from her childhood in District Six as a festive dish, reserved for high days and holidays. Her recipe is a rather pared-down one, containing only nine pickling ingredients, while esteemed local foodie and wine writer Michael Olivier provides a more complex recipe for kerrievis (“curried fish”), containing 15 pickling ingredients.

What all these recipes have in common is fish, onions, turmeric, salt, curry powder and the all-important vinegar. Important, of course, because this is the acidifying agent that prevents bacterial growth and preserves the fish. In older recipes for pickled fish, the fried fillets are packed into jars, liberally doused with a very vinegary pickling solution, and set aside in a cool place to keep for many weeks, or even months.

I find most ready-bought pickled fish (available in many supermarkets and delis in Cape Town) too vinegary and oily for my taste, so here is my version, which uses just a little vinegar and oil, and several pungent lemony ingredients. This pickle will not last, of course, for months in a jar, but you can keep it in the fridge for four to five days. It’s lovely with fresh brown bread and butter, and finely sliced, crispy iceberg lettuce.

Extra-lemony Cape Malay-style pickled fish

For the fish:

1kg firm-fleshed white fish, skinned and thoroughly boned (I use yellowtail)
100ml white flour, for dusting
salt and white pepper
3 tablespoons (45ml) vegetable oil

For the pickle:

4 tablespoons (60ml) sunflower oil
2 onions, peeled and sliced in rings (not too finely)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
a thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and grated
4 bay leaves
6 fresh lemon leaves
3 whole white cardamom pods
1 teaspoon (5ml) cumin seeds
1 large red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
2 teaspoons (10ml) turmeric
1 teaspoon (5ml) mild curry powder
1 tablespoon (15ml) brown sugar
4 tablespoons (60 ml) white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon (5ml) finely grated lemon zest
8 black peppercorns
1 teaspoon (5ml) salt
the juice of 3 lemons
1/2 cup (125ml) water

To top:

extra fresh lemon leaves

Cut the fish into portions each about the size of a deck of cards. Put the flour onto a plate and season with salt and white pepper. Heat the oil over a brisk flame in a frying pan. Dust each slice of fish in the seasoned flour, shake to remove the excess, place in the hot oil and fry, in batches, for 2 to 3 minutes on each side, or until golden brown on both sides and just cooked through. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Now make the pickling mixture. Wipe the pan clean of oil and residue using a piece of kitchen paper. Heat the vegetable oil in the pan, over a medium-high flame. When the oil is hot, add the onion rings and fry for 3 minutes, or until they beginning to colour, but still retain a slight crunch. Add the garlic, ginger, bay and lemon leaves, cardamom and cumin seeds, and cook, stirring gently, for 1 or 2 minutes more, taking care not to let the garlic brown. Now add the chilli, turmeric, curry powder, sugar, vinegar, lemon zest, peppercorns and salt. Turn down the heat and allow to bubble gently for 2 minutes, or until the mixture has reduced slightly, and the vinegary flavour has cooked away. Finally, stir in the lemon juice and water. Simmer for another minute, then remove from the heat.

Tip half of this mixture into the bottom of a ceramic or plastic dish just big enough to hold all of the fish in a single layer. Pour the remaining mixture on top, making sure that every piece of fish is well coated with the pickling liquid. Top with a few extra lemon leaves, cover the dish tightly with cling film or a lid, and refrigerate for at least 12 hours – preferably 24 – turning the fish now and then in its pickle. Serve cold, with buttered brown bread.

Makes 1kg pickled fish.

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