I’VE made pickled fish only twice, and both times I’ve been astonished about two things: how easy it is to make, and how I could have waited so long before making it again.
I find that it is one of those things people almost instinctively turn their noses up at. Sometimes some of the best things in life are just taken for granted. It’s the prophet in his own country syndrome – you know him so well that you just can’t believe he really could be such a clever dude. It’s human nature to diss what’s in front of you. So what do most Capetonians think of Cape Malay or old Cape Dutch dishes like pickled fish or tomato bredie, smoorsnoek or melktert? A samoosa is seen as just a street snack, a bite between meals. But it is a little marvel, that wonderfully crunchy, tangy crust and the lightly curried contents, whether meat or vegetable.
The result: the remarkable resource of recipes that can claim to be “Cape” cuisine, thanks to the confluence of all manner of factors, cultures and cuisines ending up in our culinary melting pot over the centuries, is almost an afterthought as chefs strive to create something new every day, generally ignoring the old and the traditional.
Tomato bredie, for instance, is one of our most delicious dishes. It is also truly distinctive, with its intense tomato flavour dominating all else, which outside of Italian cuisine is highly unusual. Normally, tomato is a part of many other things. But when last did you find tomato bredie on a Cape menu? I cannot think of a single instance in recent times. But a column on tomato bredie is still pending. I’ll be coming back to that thought soon.
For now, I’ve had pickled fish in mind, having cooked it (for the second time) recently when I did a stint in the kitchen at Societi Bistro. And it is a cooked dish, even though it is served cold or at room temperature. (Careful now … it’s fish, even if it is preserved, so you need to serve it soon after it has been brought to room temperature.)
I have to say that when simply reading a recipe for pickled fish, it doesn’t sound particularly appetising. All that sunflower oil and brown vinegar sounds, well, oily and vinegary. Gloopy and gluggy. Not very PC either. The kneejerk solution would be to decide to use olive oil instead of sunflower. Well, maybe. I might try it that way some time, although I think the flavour and character would change substantially. But sometimes there’s something to be said to sticking with the tradition, even if my tendency is to look at a recipe and think, what can we do here to tweak it, to modernise it just a little.
I have to confess I did give in to that temptation, just a little. Pickled fish is traditionally made with turmeric, the ground dried yellow tuber that is sometimes called poor man’s saffron. I decided to leave out turmeric altogether, and to use saffron instead, if only because I had a little vial of saffron on a kitchen shelf and had been wondering what to do with it.
The recipe I used first time round was from Faldela Williams’ reliable standby (when you’re looking for authentic Cape Malay recipes), The Cape Malay Cookbook (Struik), published many years ago. This is a straightforward recipe, and it works. It calls for 2kg of yellowtail fillets, which you cut into portions and fry in oil after seasoning them with salt and pepper. These can cool while you make the pickling solution. Slice three large onions thinly, and put them in a deep saucepan with 200ml brown vinegar, a teaspoon of ground turmeric (borrie), 20ml sugar, 2 teaspoons curry powder, a teaspoon of chilli powder, 5 bay leaves and salt and pepper. Pour in 125ml sunflower oil, stir, and bring to a simmer. Let it simmer for five to 10 minutes, salt to taste, and allow to cool to room temperature. Alternately layer fish and onions in a suitable preserve jar, pouring over a little of the pickling sauce each time. Make sure there’s enough sauce to cover. If it runs out, make a little more of the sauce (i.e. everything except the onions, cooked quickly over a high heat) and top up the jar.
Second time around, last weekend, I more or less followed the above recipe, but with two variations: the saffron, as I’ve suggested, replaced the turmeric. I used about 10 strands, as the turmeric has to be well compensated for. And instead of brown vinegar, I used white wine vinegar, just to soften the flavour a little. I was happy with the way it turned out; it tasted pretty much like the turmeric-enhanced alternative, and it had plenty of colour from the saffron and the curry mix we bought in Durban recently.
It plates up pretty well too. Coriander leaf is not really a traditional addition to this dish, but on the plate it looks great if you scatter some dhania leaves around, and the perky flavour of coriander leaf does not harm the distinctive taste of this Cape classic. Just make sure you use fish from the Sassi green list – happily, yellowtail is greenlighted, and it’s perfect for pickling.