“Easter is a very foodie festival. Only in South Africa does pickled fish come to the Easter table.”
– News 24
Curious as to how this tradition came about, I delved into some of the reasons as to how this uniquely inclusive to both Christians and Muslims, culinary tradition, started.
Meerlust farm and Lady Anne Barnard
The oldest records of this culinary custom came from Lady Anne Barnard who, after visiting Meerlust farm in the Cape of Good Hope, in 1798, wrote that she was served “fish of the nature of cod, pickled with turmarick (sic)”
It could have been served over Easter Weekend because fishing boats did not go out at that time so there was no fresh fish. But there are also suggested, religious reasons to the pickling practice.
Cape Christians spent most of Good Friday in church so that they got to their homes in the middle of the afternoon to break their Lenten abstinence ritual with hot cross buns and pickled fish. It was also customary to eat fish every Friday.
What Cass Abrahams says
Cape Culinary icon, Cass Abrahams remembers that, “my grandmother believed nobody should cook on Good Friday – and no stove should be lit. So, she would make pickled fish on the Wednesday before the Easter weekend and there would be enough to last till Easter Monday.”
She converted to Islam when she married and reminds us that, “Muslims went to camp at the Kramat at Makassar over the Easter weekend and pickled fish was what everyone ate”.
So even though it might seem like Christian cuisine, the Cape culinary culture has always been uniquely inclusive, and many Muslims also make pickled fish at this time of year. There are long established “English” (i.e. Christian) and “Muslim” recipe variants within the coloured community. There are also distinct white Afrikaner and Xhosa pickled fish recipes.
Cass Abraham’s Muslim pickled fish
1kg snoek cut into portions, chopped
10ml ground coriander
10ml ground cumin
2 bay leaves, 4 allspice berries, 4 cloves
2ml pepper corns
2 large onions, sliced
5 cloves garlic
Salt the fish and fry in coconut oil until cooked. Remove with slotted spoon and set aside in a separate bowl. Retain oil. Place rest of ingredients in a pot and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer until onions are transparent but haven’t lost crunch.
Pour warm sauce and oil over fish, making sure each portion of the fish is covered. Allow to cool and store in a cool place