Cape Malay recipes/ Main courses

Cape Malay Pickled Fish

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 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. Pickled Fish can also be found on many a table of all faiths on Good Friday and eaten with buttered hot cross buns.

The origins of Cape Malay Pickled Fish 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 makes pickled fish on Good Friday.

A few years ago our neighbor, Uncle Faaiz (may Allah have mercy on his soul and grant him the highest paradise), brought me 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 pickled fish 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 it in the first week of the year as a means to recover from the excesses of festive season and holiday feasting. So basically, a way to detox!

What I couldn’t figure out though was how it 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 best way to preserve it as there were no refrigeration facilities at the camp site!

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 recipe for Cape Malay Pickled Fish or Ingelegde vis, and even amongst 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).

If you are curious about Cape Malay cuisine please check out my recipes for Cape Malay Pancakes with coconut or berries, Daltjies spinach and corn fritters, Boeber, Cape Malay Potato pudding, or Falooda milkshake.

 Top tips for successful 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 fish masala and pickle mix as it ensures fresher flavors and consistency in the recipe.
Cape Malay Pickled Fish

Cape Malay Pickled Fish

Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Cape Malay
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour
Servings: 6
Calories: 408 kcal
Author: 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.
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Ingredients

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 pickled fish masala or fish masala

Optional for serving

  • Coriander microshoots
  • Fennel blossoms

Instructions

Masala fish

  1. Cut the fish into 6.5 cm (2.5 inch) squares and wipe dry with kitchen towel. You should have 12 pieces.
  2. 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.
    Snoek slices for pickled fish
  3. Flip the fish pieces over and sprinkle the other side with the remaining salt and fish masala.
    Snoek slices for pickled fish with fish masala
  4. Cover the fish with cling wrap and refrigerate until ready to fry when the pickling mix goes onto the stove.
  5. Heat a frying pan on medium-high and add enough oil to cover the base. Fry the fish on both sides until cooked through.
  6. Put the fried fish on to a tray lined with foil.

Blanching the onions

  1. Slice the onions into 5 mm wide rings and sprinkle over 15 ml sea salt.
  2. Rub the salt into the onions and let sit until required.
  3. 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.
  4. Discard the onion water and rinse the pot then put it back on the stove.

Pickling marinade

  1. 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
  2. Remove from the heat and add the onion rings to the pickling marinade.

Layering the Cape Malay pickled fish

  1. Lay half the fried fish into a glass casserole dish then cover with half the onion rings.
  2. 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.
  3. Pour over the hot pickling marinade and allow to cool at room temperature then cover with a lid or plastic wrap and refrigerate.
    Cape Malay Pickled Fish
  4. Allow the marinade to infuse the pickled fish for at least 6 hours or overnight, before eating.
    Cape Malay Pickled Fish
  5. Decorate with fennel blossoms and coriander microshoots, if using.


  6. Serve with buttered hot cross buns or crusty bread.

Recipe Notes

  • 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.

 

Nutrition Facts
Cape Malay Pickled Fish
Amount Per Serving (85 grams)
Calories 408 Calories from Fat 153
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 17g 26%
Saturated Fat 2g 10%
Cholesterol 41mg 14%
Sodium 1681mg 70%
Potassium 411mg 12%
Total Carbohydrates 38g 13%
Dietary Fiber 8g 32%
Sugars 29g
Protein 20g 40%
Vitamin A 0.3%
Vitamin C 6.5%
Calcium 6.7%
Iron 10.9%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.

 

Cape Malay Pickled Fish

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34 Comments

  • Reply
    Idora
    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
    Anna
    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
    Komal
    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
    Apolline
    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
    Brian
    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
    Aditi
    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
    Eloise
    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
    Jennifer
    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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