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.



Odds and ends – I

Sometimes life overtakes us.

So it has been for me in the last ten days.  The day job and the project on which I’ve been working, seems to be taking an eternity to come to an end, have taken me to Johannesburg and back.  I’ve been at my desk for ten or so hours a day.

I’m not getting to many of my favourite things, including Fiona’s Favourites and blogging.  Quite a few things are falling through the cracks.  Bear with me.

In the meantime, here is a selection of some  photographs that don’t fit into any particular theme, but which I rather like.


A black and white bee-eater on the back of a wrought iron chair in our garden.

SAM_5740.JPGBlossoms from a tree collecting in the agave underneath it.  I loved the clean, sharp lines of the leaves and the textures in this photograph.


One of my favourite decorations for the Christmas tree;  it’s handmade and I bought it, along with a few similar ones from a craft market about ten years ago.

If you were waiting for me to share the passata recipe, I’m sorry.  The passata’s done, and so am I.  Tomorrow’s another day, and next weekend is a holiday weekend.  Let’s see how things unfold:  watch this space!

© Fiona’s Favourites 2016

Mice and Mince Pies

December 25th, 2015 dawned much as every summer day does, but two things were different.  First, it was Christmas day, so there was no alarm clock, and there was a great deal to do.  Some of it, including the baking of Christmas mince pies and shortbread, should have happened on Christmas Eve.

Secondly, Pearli had suddenly grown up;  she seemed to have become quite sedate; hunting less and not getting into so much trouble, spending much of her day curled up, asleep – like a proper cat.

Pearli doing what “proper” cats do

Or so we thought.

As we were having our morning tea before facing the day, a thundercat hurtled up the stairs.  It definitely wasn’t Melon.  It had to be Pearli. The “footprints” told us so.  Sure enough, Pearli presented us with a Christmas present – the first catch for a very long time (as far as we are aware) – a real, live mouse.  Needless to say, having to deal with that levitated us into the final Christmas dinner preparations.

Most of this is a doddle:  same procedure as last every year for Fred and the shortbread, sans the rosemary this time.

Finally, the mince pies.

Mince pies

For the uninitiated, these are sweet tarts with a spiced fruit mince that is made from, predominantly raisins, currents and fruit peel.  They are traditional Christmas confectionary and the chain stores are filled with them.  Talk radio stations have phone-in shows and debate which store’s is better.  Seriously.

The first effort and was more than thirty years ago.  I was living in Johannesburg and had nowhere to go, and had been invited by a lovely family to join them for Christmas lunch.  Not one to go empty handed, I offered to bring the mince pies.

Clearly my penchant for eschewing the store-bought is ingrained because I decided to make them.  It didn’t enter my head to do a practice run.  Anyhow, in making this decision, I also decided that I would not use my mother’s pastry recipe:  her pastry was made with lard and I always thought that it was too thick.  Particularly for dainty mince pies.  For the life of me, I cannot recall what pastry recipe I used (It may have been a hot water one), but I do recall that I rolled it very thin and I  ended up making what became known as the “Million Mince Pies”.  Notwithstanding the fact that they were eaten and enjoyed, for the following year or so, I was enjoined to limit the number!  Too much of a good thing, and all that jazz….

So, although there are recipes for fruit mince, it is something I do not make.  Why?  Well, some of it has to do with getting my act together and getting things done ahead of time, and when it comes to Christmas, I’m not very good at that.  The planning starts on 15 December, if I’m lucky, but usually nearer 18th or 20th and the mince needs to be made at least two weeks in advance.  Anyway, from a jar, it’s more than acceptable and I can “doctor” it to make it my “own”, without breaking the bank. More importantly, the individual ingredients are jolly (!) expensive and it would be false economy to make it.

Or so I thought:  Mr Mac, one of the village foodies, a former Michelin-rated restaurant owner and hotelier (in Scotland) and a Scot, has just lent me a fabulous recipe book, written by a friend of his.  It contains a great mincemeat recipe.  I am now resolved to make fruit mince this winter, in preparation for next Christmas, as well as some other fabulous Sweet Things….

Back to the mince pies:  unlike when I make quiche for supper, or to order, at Christmas, I make pastry.

I have no idea where I got this recipe, but reading it, it must have been part of a promotion in a magazine, and for a particular brand of flour.


The first time I used this recipe, it was not for Christmas, but for a lunch party, part of which involved my “creating” recipes for friend’s aloe-based food range.

aloe tart 2

The jam tart was a hit, particularly the pastry.  When Christmas came along that year, I decided to use the recipe for the mince pies, but instead of making one large tart, I decided to do individual ones as well.  That was about six years ago, and I still do it.    MincePies2015

Tips, not in the recipe, or in my handwritten notes:

  • butter (I never use margarine*);  the oil is canola
  • use a food processor and if you have one that has different sized bowls, use the medium sized one
  • instead of rolling the pastry for the individual pies, break off and press bits of the pastry into the baking tin (a shallow muffin tin);  I do this for the larger tart, too.  This pastry, because of the quantity of fat/oil, is difficult to work with, especially in our summer heat, so “finger pressing” is easier than rolling and much less frustrating….
  • put the pastry that is reserved for the “lids” into the deep freeze while you’re lining the pie dish or pan.  This will make it easier to grate and work with when you’re ready

As I mentioned, I use store-bought fruit mince, and to this, I have added the apple suggested in this recipe, but I’ve also left it out:  it wasn’t missed.  What I always add is brandy – a good glug – and probably more than the 25ml the recipe talks about.  I used to add a sprinkling of granulated sugar, but I’ve stopped doing that – it makes little if any difference.

A White Christmas

So, mince pies and shortbread done, it was time to “dress” the table.  This year, it was a “white” Christmas with touches of red, including in the starter**, and the closest we get to a white Christmas in Africa (and, I gather, in most of the world, this year).


The meal concluded with the usual shortbread and mince pies.  One of our guests, amazed that I make my own, declared that the mince pies were better than those from one of the premium stores.  It has to be the pastry!

And about that mouse –

We have no idea what happened to Pearli’s gift:  by the time we had propelled ourselves out of the bedroom, both Pearli and mouse had disappeared.

*of course if, for dietary reasons, you can’t use dairy, margarine is more than acceptable
**those salad days are still to come…

© Fiona’s Favourites 2016