Cape Malay Pickled Fish (Ingelegde vis)

Cape Malay Pickled Fish

Cape Malay Pickled Fish is pan-fried lightly spiced white fish steeped in a sweet and sour marinade of crunchy onions, vinegar, sugar and dry roasted whole and ground spices. It is even better when you make your own homemade fish masala powder.

Pickled fish is one of the most popular traditional foods eaten in Cape Town over the holidays and it’s popularity is not limited to the Cape Malay community. The Cape Malay recipe for Pickled Fish is popular on many a table of all faiths on Good Friday and eaten with buttered hot cross buns.

The origins of the Cape Malay Pickled Fish recipe was always somewhat mysterious and has plagued me for as long as I can remember. I could not figure how a Cape Malay fish dish became synonymous with a Christian holiday, yet every single Muslim family I know has their own pickled fish recipe and makes pickled fish on Good Friday.

Cape Malay Pickled Fish

A few years ago our neighbor, Uncle Faaiz (may Allah have mercy on his soul and grant him the highest paradise), brought me his wife’s Cape Malay Pickled Fish the day before my return to Dubai. He said that he remembered that my mother always made it for me when I visited. When he saw the snoek vendors on the roadside he had to stop and buy a fresh snoek, so that his wife could make the fried masala fish and pickle it before I left.

Uncle Faaiz passed away suddenly a few months later and the last story he told me was about the origins of the Cape Malay Pickled Fish. He said that snoek was always plentiful around New Year. In the ‘old days’ (my grandparents generation and earlier) they would make their Cape Malay Pickled fish in the first week of the year. It was a means to recover from the excesses of festive season and holiday feasting on roasted or braaied chicken and meats and corned meats. So basically, a way to detox!

What I couldn’t figure out though was how pickled fish became a staple of the Cape Malays over Easter, even those families without Christian relatives. Then I remembered all the stories I’ve heard over the years of the camping trips that the Cape Malay community made to the kramats at Faure.

Entire families would travel there to spend the four day Easter weekend camping and socializing with relatives and friends. Pickling the fish was the traditional and best way to preserve it as there were no refrigeration facilities at the camp site in the old days!

Cape Malay Pickled Fish

The kramat or memorial tomb itself is a mausoleum like structure built over the original burial place of Sheikh Yusuf of Makassar. He was an Indonesian royal who was exiled to Cape Town via Ceylon in 1694, after a failed uprising against Dutch occupation and colonization. Although he was not the first Muslim or the first Muslim religious leader to be exiled to this outpost colony of the Dutch East Indies Company, his home on the farm of Zandvliet is considered to have been the first organized community of muslim slaves and exiles.

Unlike the sacred places dedicated to heroes or martyrs of other faiths, the kramats of the Cape Malays do not contain idols or statues and are not places where the deceased are worshipped. The kramats are memorials for the religious leaders who taught and propagated the religion of Islam in the Cape, and a way for Cape Malays to remember our origins and history.

Every family has their own Cape Malay Pickled Fish recipe with some preferring it more sweet, and others preferring it more sour. There are many different South African pickled fish recipes and the Cape Malay Pickled Fish recipe includes powdered and whole spices as well as sugar to temper the sourness of the vinegar. This is very different to the Scandinavian pickled herring or pickled mackerel recipes, and has more warming spices.

Among my mother and aunts there were differences in the type of fish they preferred, or the amount of spices and sugar that they used on the fish or in the pickling marinade. My dad disliked sour foods so my mum always used more sugar in dishes that had tomatoes or vinegar as a main ingredient, and that is how we love it too.

The most popular fish for this recipe are Snoek, Yellowtail or Geelbek (Cape  Salmon) as they have firm flesh and a flavor that can stand up to pickling. Less popular are kingklip (too expensive and with too delicate flavor) and deep sea hake (delicate flavor and flesh that flakes too easily).

Hot cross buns

How to make Cape Malay Pickled fish

  • Select a firm white fish that can withstand frying, pickling and serving without disintegrating into a mush after a night in the pickling marinade.
  • Do not use any flour to dredge the fish before frying as it makes the pickling marinade cloudy and viscous. The exception would be when using hake that requires the extra protection of a fried coating to prevent the fillets breaking apart.
  • Do not saute the onions as this is not a stew and the onions need to have some crunch. If you do not want to blanch the onions then rinse off the salt under cold running water and cook in the hot pickling marinade for 30-60 seconds before removing from the heat.
  • Dry roast the whole spices before adding to the pickling liquid to bring out the aromas and enhance the flavor.
  • Use either white grape vinegar or light apple cider vinegar for the best result. Do not ever use spirit vinegar in food.
  • You can use packaged pickle masala mix for the fried fish and pickle marinade but I prefer to make my own pickle mix and fish masala spice blend for the fish masala fry as it ensures fresher flavors and consistency in the recipe.

Cape Malay Pickled Fish

If you love Cape Malay recipes please click on the links below for more:

Cape Malay Pickled Fish

Cape Malay Pickled Fish

Razena Schroeder
Cape Malay Pickled Fish is pan-fried lightly spiced white fish steeped in a sweet and sour marinade of crunchy onions, vinegar, sugar and dry roasted whole and ground spices.
4.87 from 15 votes
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Total Time 1 hour
Course Main Course
Cuisine Cape Malay
Servings 6
Calories 356 kcal


Spiced fish

  • 500 grams firm fleshed white fish fillets, skin on cut into 6.5 cm squares, approximately 2 1/2 inch squares
  • 5 ml sea salt use more as needed
  • 80 ml fish masala or pickled fish masala, use more as needed
  • 80 ml sunflower or vegetable oil use more as needed

Blanched onion rings

  • 400 grams onion rings, 5mm slices approximately 2 large brown onions
  • 15 ml sea salt
  • 1500 ml water approximately 6 cups

Pickling marinade

  • 500 ml white grape vinegar approximately 2 cups
  • 250 ml water approximately 1 cups
  • 160 ml fine granulated sugar approximately 2/3 cup; adjust to personal taste
  • 5 ml sea salt adjust to personal taste
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 7.5 ml cumin seeds dry roasted
  • 7.5 ml coriander seeds dry roasted
  • 5 ml fennel seeds dry roasted
  • 6 peppercorns dry roasted
  • 6 cloves dry roasted
  • 6 all spice berries dry roasted
  • 2.5 ml turmeric powder
  • 7.5 ml fish masala

Optional for serving

  • Coriander microshoots
  • Fennel blossoms


Masala fish

  • Cut the fish into 6.5 cm (2.5 inch) squares and wipe dry with kitchen towel. You should have 12 pieces.
  • Place a sheet of foil or parchment on a baking tray and arrange the fish pieces skin side up then sprinkle over half the salt and fish masala spice.
  • Flip the fish pieces over and sprinkle the other side with the remaining salt and fish masala.
  • Cover the fish with cling wrap and refrigerate until ready to fry when the pickling mix goes onto the stove.
  • Heat a frying pan on medium-high and add enough oil to cover the base. Fry the fish on both sides until cooked through.
  • Put the fried fish on to a tray lined with foil.

Blanching the onions

  • Slice the onions into 5 mm wide rings and sprinkle over 15 ml sea salt.
  • Rub the salt into the onions and let sit until required.
  • Bring the 1500 ml water to the boil in a medium sized pot and blanch half of the onion rings for 10 seconds then remove to a colander. Repeat with the rest of the onion rings.
  • Discard the onion water and rinse the pot then put it back on the stove.

Pickling marinade

  • To the pot on the stove add the vinegar, water, sugar and spices and allow to simmer for 10 minutes to allow the flavors of the spices to permeate the pickling marinade
  • Remove from the heat and add the onion rings to the pickling marinade.

Layering the Cape Malay pickled fish

  • Lay half the fried fish into a glass casserole dish then cover with half the onion rings.
  • Repeat with the rest of the fish and cover with the remaining onion rings. Pour over all the juices and oil left on the foil.
  • Pour over the hot pickling marinade and allow to cool at room temperature then cover with a lid or plastic wrap and refrigerate.
  • Allow the marinade to infuse the pickled fish for at least 6 hours or overnight, before eating.
  • Decorate with fennel blossoms and coriander microshoots, if using.
  • Serve with buttered hot cross buns or crusty bread.


  • The salt removes the smell and much of the sharp taste of raw onions and you will immediately smell the strong odor of Sulphur.
  • Unless you are using flaky breaky fish like hake, do not flour the fish as it makes the pickling mix cloudy and gloopy.
  • If you do not want to blanch the onions then rinse off the salt under cold running water and cook in the hot pickling liquid for a minute before it is removed from the heat.
  • Adjust the ratio of water to vinegar according to personal taste and preference.


Serving: 85gramsCalories: 356kcalCarbohydrates: 35gProtein: 18gFat: 15gSaturated Fat: 1gCholesterol: 41mgSodium: 1681mgPotassium: 411mgFiber: 2gSugar: 29gVitamin A: 15IUVitamin C: 5.4mgCalcium: 67mgIron: 2mg

Disclaimer: Nutritional information for the recipe is an approximation and varies according to the ingredients and products used.

Keyword gluten free, halaal recipes, make-ahead, preserving
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  • Reply
    Sybil Cole
    April 7, 2023 at 7:20 pm

    Hi Ravens
    I am diabetic. Can I substitute the sugar with a natural sugar, e.g. xylitol?

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      April 9, 2023 at 6:25 pm

      I haven’t tried a sugar substitute but it should work. Let me know how it tastes.

  • Reply
    March 27, 2021 at 2:39 pm

    Hello Razena. Thanks. This looks wonderful as do the other recipes on your site. I’ve seen some pickled fish recipes that can be kept longer than overnight or one day before eating. Can one do the same with this recipe? Thank you.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      March 27, 2021 at 2:40 pm

      Hi Lev.
      It’s best to let it sit overnight or a few hours before eating so the flavors can meld.
      In summer it can keep up to 3-4 days without refrigeration. If refrigerated probably 6-7 days. Although to be honest, in our home it is usually down to the dregs of sauce by the end of the third day 😂

  • Reply
    May 3, 2020 at 10:15 am

    I live in the US and was raised on pickled fish as my parents were born in SA. I am craving it and your recipe looks very close to my mom’s recipe! We are Indian and often do not add sweetness to dinner dishes so I’ll have to experiment. Thank you!

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      May 3, 2020 at 11:09 am

      Many of the Cape Malay dinner dishes have some element of sweetness to them. We tend to like the sweet sour flavor profiles. I’m happy to hear that your mom has not lost her love of original home and heritage.

  • Reply
    Chris Gale
    October 17, 2019 at 9:48 pm

    How do I reduce the salty taste once I have completed the recipe thanks

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      October 17, 2019 at 9:52 pm

      Why is it too salty?

      There is a moderate amount of salt used to season the fish before frying.

      The salt for the onions must be rubbed in and then after the onions are blanched the liquid is discarded.

      If you added too much salt to the recipe one way to fix it is to decant the pickling liquid and boil it with with a sliced potato. The potato may absorb enough of the saltiness but you would have less pickling liquid that is more concentrated in flavor and may have to make more.

  • Reply
    April 13, 2018 at 1:07 am

    Such a beautiful story for a beautiful looking dish! I’m sure that you and your family all look at this dish in a sentimental light because of its story. Thank you for sharing!

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      April 14, 2018 at 6:40 pm

      You are most welcome. Indeed, we have so many fond memories to go with it and it is those memories that keep our traditions alive.

  • Reply
    April 3, 2018 at 3:32 pm

    I have bad experience with pickled fish – it wasn’t the asian kind, but the one you can have in the Netherlands. Since that I can’t even think about it, but your recipe sound interesting.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      April 5, 2018 at 9:13 pm

      I suspect the type of pickled fish that I tasted on the Cape West coast was similar to what you had in Netherlands. Very vinegary and no other flavor profile.

  • Reply
    Laura Dove
    April 2, 2018 at 3:23 pm

    Oh wow, I can’t say this is a dish I would be willing to try any time soon, although I am curious! I do love hot cross buns thought!

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      April 2, 2018 at 10:04 pm

      Spicy and pickled foods are not for everyone, so your response is quite understandable. I tried the pickled fish made in the style of Scandinavian pickled herring one time when we visited the West Coast, and I would definitely never eat that.

  • Reply
    April 2, 2018 at 1:56 am

    The plating is absolutely stunning! Did I see that it was served with Brie? I love anything pickled so I would give this a go.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      April 2, 2018 at 3:14 pm

      Haha the brie may be wishful thinking on your part. I have had it on the hot cross buns, though not in these photos. That is pure salted butter on the buns 🙂

  • Reply
    sabrina barbante
    April 1, 2018 at 10:26 pm

    This recipe looks so yummy; as a veg I can’t eat it but my mate, who’s great fish fun, will love if we try to make to together

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      April 1, 2018 at 11:25 pm

      This definitely is a recipe made for sharing with family or friends.

  • Reply
    Ana Ojha
    April 1, 2018 at 7:46 am

    I’m allergic to fish and all the seafood but the dish looks incredibly delicious! But I’d love to try those buns for sure. The recipe looks perfect for a family gathering or any feast at home!

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      April 1, 2018 at 2:07 pm

      Oh no! Various relatives have been allergic to seafood over the years although many of them seem to have outgrown it.

  • Reply
    Taty Barone
    April 1, 2018 at 3:41 am

    I love learning new recipes and new traditions from different cultures! Also, this recipe sounds lovely so I will definitely give it a go!

  • Reply
    April 1, 2018 at 1:35 am

    My biggest takeway is “select a firm white fish that can withstand frying” I need to try this at home.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      April 1, 2018 at 2:08 pm

      Fish that is more flaky like hake, tends to disintegrate very easily after being handled during frying and then submerged in pickling liquid.

  • Reply
    Alison Rost
    March 31, 2018 at 5:27 am

    I loved learning about the background of this dish. It may also be because that Christians only eat fish during the Holy Week and that’s probably why they also prefer having this meal when they visit. It looks SO good and packed with flavor. I’m sure it tastes wonderful.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      April 1, 2018 at 2:10 pm

      My mother’s Catholic friends also ate fish on Fridays during the rest of the year. That custom seems to have become much less prevalent than it was when I was growing up.

  • Reply
    March 30, 2018 at 1:30 pm

    This is my first time hearing about this dish. I like all the ingredients. Hope to try soon!

  • Reply
    March 29, 2018 at 4:48 pm

    I’m a vegetarian but this looks like a great recipe that I have to share with people in my circle who love fish.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      March 30, 2018 at 10:44 am

      I haven’t tried this recipe on any vegetable proteins but that is a thought!

  • Reply
    emman damian
    March 29, 2018 at 12:31 pm

    Cape Malay Pickled Fish looks so tasty! Thanks for sharing the recipe. I’ll try making this dish this weekend. I bet it will be a HIT in my home.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      March 30, 2018 at 10:43 am

      I am not familiar with many Filipino foods but one of my favorites is Chicken adobo because it reminds me of many of our sweet and sour dishes, and instead of rice I usually eat it with big breakfast pancakes studded with sultanas 🙂

  • Reply
    David Elliott
    March 28, 2018 at 11:40 pm

    I am definitely curious of the flavor combinations that you have here. I think it’s cool that this food has historical and family origins and that each person does it differently. I would love to try this out though as I love pickling and I love seafood.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      March 30, 2018 at 10:42 am

      Many of our recipes seem to have this sweet and sour flavor combination and I suspect it harks back to the ancestors and their South East Asian origins. For many years we used tamarind as the souring agent but when that became scarce, vinegar was substituted in many of the recipes.

  • Reply
    March 27, 2018 at 11:53 pm

    I’ll have to pass this dish recipe on to my folks who love pickled foods and fish! I think they would LOVE it ; ) sounds delicious! it would be great to serve at a dinner party too!

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      March 28, 2018 at 11:00 am

      This may be different to what they are used to as the lightly spiced fish is cooked first before pickling. I hope they like it.

  • Reply
    March 27, 2018 at 11:38 pm

    I can’t have fish, BUT I must say that those rolls look so interesting. The way they are criss crossed at the top is so fun! And my husband would LOVE this recipe! He likes fish for sure. 🙂

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      March 28, 2018 at 10:55 am

      When I was a child I would pick off the crosses and taste them before I ate the actual bun. They never tasted like anything though since it’s usually just a water and flour paste 😀

      This is one of my favorites ways to cook fish so I hope he likes it too.

  • Reply
    Sigrid Says
    March 27, 2018 at 7:04 pm

    This fish dish looks so tasty! But what I am drooling over is the cross buns. haha I miss them!

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      March 27, 2018 at 9:00 pm

      I was the happiest person when our local supermarkets started carrying hot cross buns throughout the year, instead of limiting it to Easter time. I made my own buns when I was a teenager but it didn’t taste exactly like the ones I loved so I didn’t make them again since we could get them year round. I may actually try making it myself because the ones I bought recently were a bit too doughy for my liking.

      • Reply
        Sigrid Says
        March 31, 2018 at 9:03 pm

        Ohhh…What we have here is sweet and soft, is that the same? Also, what spread did you use? I usually just eat our buns as they are. I am curious as to the spread that you used. If it’s available here, I might try it. 😀

        • Reply
          Razena Schroeder
          April 1, 2018 at 2:08 pm

          I love it with salted butter, nothing else will do 🙂

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