Any chowder purist who wants to sniff at this recipe may feel free to sniff away. Look here, dear purist, this is an African chowder. I wish you could taste it, because it's very good: thick, creamy, comforting and full of goodness. In short: everything I ask of a soup.
Oak-smoked snoek from my local Hout Bay harbour plays the starring role in this quick and easy dish. Properly smoked South African snoek isn't an ingredient you'll find on many supermarket shelves outside of the Western Cape, but you could substitute any similar firm-fleshed smoked white fish.
If you're lucky enough to be living in South Africa, ask your fishmonger to order you a box of smoked snoek from Mariner's Wharf in Hout Bay. This is a versatile ingredient that keeps well, and you can use any leftover fish in a snoek pâté, or in a quiche. Here's a recipe for Smoked Snoek Quiche, from Carmen Niehaus, and it's part of a very good article about snoek by veteran journalist Hilary Prendini Toffoli.
It's important to choose the right potatoes for this soup: if they're too waxy, they won't thicken the soup, and if they're too floury, they'll break up before the soup is ready. You can add a little cream to this soup at the end, but it's really not necessary: it's creamy enough as it is.
Please take the greatest care removing the bones from the snoek. Most of the bones are large ones, but there are also small ones that can lurk undetected among the fish flakes. Use your fingertips to shred the fish, and check it for bones twice.
Finally, here's another recipe for Smoked Snoek and Sweet Potato Chowder from my friend Marisa at The Creative Pot, who made her soup on the same day I made mine. Clearly, it was a chowder kind of day.
Smoked Snoek Chowder, Cape Town style
300 g oak-smoked snoek
3 medium leeks, white parts only
3 T butter
a small clove of garlic, crushed
3 T (45 ml) flour
4 cups (1 litre) milk
2 cups (500 ml) water (or fish stock)
3 T (45 ml) white wine
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
salt and freshly milled black pepper
300 g peeled, raw potato, cut into1-cm-square cubes
a pinch of white pepper
the juice of half a lemon
4 T (60 ml) finely chopped fresh parsley
Pull the skin off the snoek and, using your fingertips, carefully remove all bones (look out for the little ones). Flake the fish and set aside. With a sharp knife, make a long length ways cut through each leek, slicing only half way through. Gently fan out the 'leaves' and rinse well under running water to remove any grit. Finely slice the leeks. Heat the butter in a large pan, add the leeks and cook over a moderate for three or four minutes, until softened (but do not allow to brown). Stir in the garlic and flour. Cook, stirring well, for three minutes.
Mix the milk, water and wine in a jug and pour this into the pan, stirring briskly to break up any lumps. Add the thyme sprigs and a third (100g) of the flaked snoek. Season well with salt and pepper and bring to a gentle boil, stirring constantly. Tip all the potato cubes into the soup, turn down the heat and simmer for 20-25 minutes, or until the potato cubes are cooked through, but not falling apart. (Don't worry if the soup looks a little thin to begin with: the potato cubes will thicken it up). Add the remaining smoked snoek and heat through for a further five minutes. If the soup seems a little too thick, thin it down with more milk or water. Season with a pinch of white pepper, and more salt if necessary. Remove the thyme sprigs.
Just before serving, and after you've removed the soup from the heat, stir in the lemon juice and fresh parsley.