Pickled Fish: a South African Tradition

Pickled Fish - a South African traditional recipe

Pickled fish is an iconic traditional South African dish.  I first ate pickled fish at the ripe old age of about seven.  It was the starter for Christmas lunch:  the first I really remember.  I was instantly smitten.  Auntie Doris made it every year and for all the years we “had Christmas” at number 10, I looked forward to it – more than the Christmas cake or the Christmas pudding.  In the intervening years, I don’t remember eating it very often.

Regional traditions

I grew up in the Eastern Cape, and not in a coastal town.  I think I’ve mentioned that although both my mother and I enjoyed eating fish, my father didn’t.  Fish was not a regular menu item.  I have no recollection of eating pickled fish other than at Christmas.  It was only when I moved to the Western Cape that I was assailed with stories of the Easter pickled fish tradition.

Making pickled fish

My original pickled fish recipes

I have no recollection of what spurred me on to making pickled fish.  I do know that the first attempt was probably nearly 20 years ago.  I don’t remember the occasion.  I do remember two things:

  • Consulting the lovely lady in “our” spice shop who not only gave me a recipe, but a few tips.
  • Hearing celebrity chef, Jenny Morris talking on the radio about making pickled fish.  Not long after, her regular newsetter – and recipe – arrived in my inbox.

I carefully copied, pasted and saved the email recipe.  After printing it out, I filed it with the other.  They still “live” together.

“My” recipe is “born”

Pickled fish starter: Christmas 2021

I now make pickled fish twice a year.  Before we moved to McGregor, it had become our standard Christmas starter and a tradition that continues.  Because of this, in addition to the traditional Easter “season”, I also sell it at the market.

An lockdown-related aside

Portioning pickled fish for the market

I know I’ve told this story elsewhere, but it bears telling again:

When we went into a hard lockdown, two years ago in March, Easter fell earlier than this year. Feeling the fear and now “un-normal” things were, l naively decided to try to retain some semblance of normality, if not cheer. So, I posted on our community notice board, something to the effect and that I was taking orders for pickled fish. As I had done, twice a year for the last several.

I say, naively, because our my understanding of the lockdown had not included word for word interrogation of the regulations. I discovered, thanks to vitriolic keyboard “police”, that even my suggestion could not be countenanced.

So, began for me, a very difficult patch. That was just one incident. Perhaps I will write about the others. Suffice it to say that I retreated, folded my wings and embraced the black that came with being locked down.

I recognise that, only now, am I beginning to re-emerge and really heal. Partly, too, because at least three of those self-appointed keepers of the village wellbeing have been spat out have left.

Back into the pickle

Over the years, and because I’m not a fan of deep fried foods, I decided that I would take Ms Simply Spice’s advice and bake my fish.  Not fry it – either with or without batter – which is the most common way of doing it.  That, and my use of fresh ginger and the ratios of curry powder are the result of trial and error.  My go-to curry powder is a blend called mother-in-law.  Yes, it has a bite as the name suggests.  And it has good flavour.  One of the women who cared for my ailing father, and of Cape Malay descent recommended it.  I’ve not looked back.

Flavour roots

As I’ve learned more about the smorgasbord of traditional cuisines with which South Africa is blessed, and as I’ve learned about cooking and preserving in general, I realise that pickled fish is deeply rooted in the miscellany of cultures that make us who we are: Malay and often Muslim, Dutch, Catholic and Protestant.  The consumption of pickled fish on Good Friday has Catholic roots;  the spices and sweet curry flavouring: Malay and Muslim.  I love it.

Advance planning and long life

Last  but not least:  don’t decide to make pickled fish tonight for tomorrow.  It needs to pickle.  It needs at least three days.  That means its a great dish for preparing ahead and copes well with being left over.

Market sales

The 2022 batch of fish ready to pickle

I don’t know how long ago I started making pickled fish to sell at the market.  Considering I’ve had a stall at the market for nearly ten years, it must be at least six or seven.  This year, at least six weeks ahead of Easter, I had somebody asking if I’d be making pickled fish this year.  Well, umm…is the duck’s…?

On the back of that, I canvassed my usual customers and had I made my regular batch, I’d have sold everything before it got to the market.  This year’s batch is the largest I’ve made in years.

Pickled Fish

A traditional South African recipe

  • 2 kg Firm fish (Yellow tail, kabeljou, snoek, hake, angel fish)
  • Oil (For baking/frying)
  • 3 cups vinegar (red wine vinegar adds an extra depth of flavour)
  • 1 cup water
  • 25 ml turmeric
  • 15 ml curry powder
  • 25 ml black pepper corns
  • 25 ml crushed, fresh ginger
  • 4 large onions, finely sliced
  • 6 lemon leaves
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 cup sultanas
  • 40ml cake flour
  1. Cut the fish into portions, season and dust with flour and a little of the curry powder.
  2. Bake in a moderate oven for about 20 minutes or until cooked; turn half way through.
  3. In a large, stainless steel, ceramic or enamel pot combine the vinegar, water, sugar, turmeric, curry powder, salt and pepper corns. Bring to a boil.
  4. Add the onions, lemon and bay leaves. Simmer for about 10 minutes.  Be careful not to overcook the onions – keep them crunchy.
  5. Place the flour into a small bowl or jug and gradually add a little of the sauce to make a smooth paste. Add this to the sauce and stir over a high heat until it thickens.
  6. Add the sultanas.
  7. Starting with the onions layer them with the fish in a glass dish (do not use plastic or metal). Pour over the sauce.  Cover and allow to cool before putting it into the fridge.
  8. Allow to stand for at least three days before eating. Keeps for up to three months.
  9. Serve at room temperature with brown bread and butter.
Appetizer, Main Course
South African

If you find that awkward to print, you’ll find a downloadable copy of the recipe here.  If you download it, buy me a coffee. Or better yet, a glass of wine….?

To all are celebrating religious and cultural festivals over the next few days, I send blessings.

Until next time, be well
The Sandbag House
McGregor, South Africa

Photo: Selma

Post script

I am participating in @traciyork‘s twice-yearly Hive Blog Posting Month.

If this post might seem familiar, it’s because I’m doing two things:

  • re-vamping old recipes. As I do this, I am adding them in a file format that you can download and print. If you download recipes, buy me a coffee. Or better yet, a glass of wine….?
  • and “re-capturing” nearly two years’ worth of posts.

I blog to the Hive blockchain using a number of decentralised applications.

  • From WordPress, I use the Exxp WordPress plugin. If this rocks your socks, click here or on on the image below to sign up.

  • Join Hive using this link and then join us in the Silver Bloggers’ community by clicking on the logo.
Original artwork: @artywink
  • lastly, graphics are created using partly my own photographs and Canva.



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