My Cape Malay pickled fish recipe


It always amuses me hearing someone refer to “traditional Afrikaans food” and mention bredie, sosaties, bobotie, apricot chutney and the like. All of these dishes are actually creations of the population of Cape Malay slaves who were shipped to Cape Town by the Dutch during their earlier settlement in South Africa. The Cape Malay slaves brought with them an array of various ingredients, cooking styles and recipes which they twisted and tweaked to fit in with the produce and food they were limited to in the Cape. Little did they know just how influential they would be on the Culinary heritage of South Africa. One of the most popular spices in South Africa, simple coriander, so intrinsically linked to the flavours of boerewors and biltong, was brought to South Africa by them.

Anyway, I digress. I tend to go on and on about the heritage of food. It’s a fascinating topic on its own. With it being Easter at the moment, one tradition followed by South Africans over the centuries is one of having pickled fish over the easter weekend. Ironically, the Cape Malay slaves were Muslim but this tradition has stuck with us nonetheless. After countless requests, I’ve finally decided to share my pickled fish recipe. I have few recipes that I don’t like sharing and this is one of them! That’s how much I stand by this recipe. It works everytime.
Pickled fish is awesome with everything, I love it on toasted chewy bread like ciabbata (see the pic I posted above?), you can serve it hot or cold. It keeps for weeks in the fridge due to the pickling liquid.

You want to use a more firmer fleshed fish and not one as flaky as hake or salmon. If you can’t find yellowtail, sea bream also works well.

1kg yellowtail fillets, skin on but no bones and scales.
5 garlic cloves, chopped
2 large red onions, sliced into rings
Kosher or pickling salt
250 ml red grape vinegar
125 ml water
125ml sticky brown/treacle sugar
10 whole black peppercorns
5 cloves
5 allspice berries
4 bay leaves
1 tablespoon masala powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 cup oil (could be less, this is for frying)


1. In a bowl, rub the salt on all sides of the fish pieces and let them stand for 25 minutes. This step draws moisture out of the flesh of the fish and makes it firmer. It’s essential as the firmer the flesh, the better your final result.
2. Rinse the salt off the fish under cold running water and dry the fish on paper towel.
3. If your fish pieces are still large, cut them into cubes. Don’t make the cubes too small as they will break apart when cooked. NB. At no stage should you remove the skin!
4. Heat the oil in a pan and fry the fish until cooked through. (Don’t stir it as it fries, be gentle and lift and turn the fish regularly. You want the cubes to remain intact.)
5. Put the rest of the ingredients in a thick based pot on medium heat whilst stirring to melt the sugar.
6. Simmer the mixture for about 9 minutes. The onions are cooked when translucent but they shouldn’t be limp and soggy. Try keep them as crisp as possible.
7. Layer the fish and the sauce and onions alternately in a glass dish. Pour the rest of the sauce over everything at the end.
8.Refrigerate. Every now and then turn the fish in the dish if the sauce hasn’t covered all of the fish.

Note: Pickled fish is best served a day or two after its made.

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