Tuesday 30 March 2010

Extra-Lemony Cape-Malay-Style Pickled Fish

Cape Pickled Fish
If you're not a lover of seafood, your nose may well wrinkle at the thought of eating pickled fish. I concede that, when put together, the words 'pickled' and 'fish' are unpleasantly redolent of pale things floating in jars of vinegar.

But this dish, properly made with good, fresh ingredients, is quite delicious, and I urge you to give the recipe a bash.

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

There isn't space on this blog 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 please visit the Cape Slavery Heritage blog, an encyclopaedic site packed with fascinating stories and many compelling images.

Cape Slave Fisherman.
Image courtesy of Patric Tariq Mell├ęt
The earliest written reference I know of to Cape pickled fish comes from Lady Anne Barnard (picture below) who, after visiting Meerlust farm in 1798, wrote that she was served 'fish of the nature of cod, pickled with Turmarick'.

Hildagonda J. Duckitt, one of South Africa's most esteemed historical cookbook authors, provided 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 picking 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 (which is available in many supermarkets and delis in Cape Town) too aggressively vinegary and oily, so here is my version, which uses just a little vinegar and oil, and several pungent lemony ingredients. This pickle will not, of course, last for months in a jar, but you can keep it in the fridge for four to five days. This is lovely with fresh brown bread and butter, and crisp finely sliced iceberg lettuce.

Extra-Lemony Cape-Malay-Style Pickled Fish

For the fish:

1 kg firm-fleshed white fish, skinned and thoroughly boned (I used sustainable yellowtail)
½ cup (125 ml) flour, for dusting
salt and white pepper
3 Tbsp (45 ml) vegetable oil

For the pickle: 

4 Tbsp (60 ml) flavourless oil (sunflower or canola)
2 onions, peeled and sliced in rings (not too finely)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
a thumb-size piece of ginger, peeled and grated
4 bay leaves
6 fresh lemon leaves
3 whole white cardamom pods
1 tsp (5 ml) cumin seeds
1 large red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
2 tsp (10 ml)  turmeric
1 tsp (5 ml) mild curry powder
1 Tbsp (15 ml) brown sugar
4 Tbsp (60 ml) white wine vinegar
1 tsp (5 ml) finely grated lemon zest
8 black peppercorns
1 tsp (5 ml) salt
the juice of 3 lemons
½ cup (125 ml) 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 2-3 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's good and hot, add the onion rings and fry for three minutes, or until they beginning to colour, but still retain a good crunch.  Add the garlic, ginger, bay leaves, lemon leaves, cardamom and cumin seeds and cook, stirring gently, for another minute or two, 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 bubble gently for two minutes, or until the mixture has reduced slightly, and the strong vinegary flavour has cooked away.

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 the fish in a single layer. Pour the remaining mixture on top, making sure every piece of fish is well coated with the pickling liquid.  Top with a few extra lemon leaves, cover the dish tightly with clingfilm 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 1 kg pickled fish
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Nina Timm said...

I love every bit of detail in this post. 10/10 for your attention to accuracy and information. I love pickled fish and a "lighter" version is most welcome!

Marisa said...

Great post! Lovely to read some of the history behind this well-loved dish.

Confession: I actually *like* the storebought tinned pickled fish, so I'm sure your version would blow me away!

Dewi said...

Very unique dish, and I love the history there.

Unknown said...

Love Cape Malay cooking
Love Pickled Fish
Love Lemons

This is the perfect recipe for me.

Interesting - 2nd pickled fish blog post I've encountered this week!

On the other one I commented that I always think of my grandmother when eating pickled fish, hers were delicious, but my mother-in-law's is the best so far - she also uses the lemon zest and juice.

Kit said...

I was of the wrinkling nose brigade to start with, but you make it sound delicious! I like all the history too.

Lana said...

Oooooh, I want to eat this off my laptop screen RIGHT NOW!! :)

Ishay said...

What a beautiful, thoughtful and well-researched post. Congrats on your radio interview! I would love to try this (love the fact that you've added cardamoms aka "land mines" that nugget courtesy of husb). Hope you had a lovely long weekend with the kids.