There are a few puzzling things that we do as South Africans. We drive to the beach but then don’t get out of the car, we say sorry when someone else has dropped something and at Easter time Christians and Muslims alike observe the ancient curried fish ritual.
If you wish you can attempt to satisfy your curiosity by delving into the deep net to find the origins of the Pickled Fish custom. Be warned. Cyberspace is full of trite explanations about slaves who came with spices from the East, the Crucifixion and a myriad quotes from the Recipe Nazis. No real insights.
Most of us have grown up with the simple understanding that this is just how it is at this time of year. You sweat in a long queue at Fish for Africa (or even better you fetch the rod from the hokkie and get out there yourself). If you’re headed for the shops – no, this is one time Woollies won’t cut it… boycott or not – the question is will you lash out for yellow tail or do you display your serious lack of class with hake?
The next step on this hazardous journey is the choice of spice merchant. ABC Bazaars in Military Road is right out. Their produce arrived with Van Riebeeck. Akhalwaya’s at the Plaza is a good choice but you could do better. Don’t even look at the masala bin. If your grandmother didn’t hand down the ingredients, your family is doomed to forever roam the margins of acceptable society.
Big choice number two is whether you make the sauce one or two days before. I’m an outright snob so this is not a self-help guide for the hopelessly inept. And anyway the age-old, traditional guidelines change every year.
For most ordinary people the saga ends with frying some fish and letting it soak in a secret sauce. But in Cape Town the tradition has reached new heights. Once you’ve glided through all the hoops, you take your bakkie of fish and join an annual pilgrimage to the lower reaches of Table Mountain.
The annual Terry Fortune International Pickled Fish Competition in Walmer Estate is where the truly classy PF aristocracy head with their yellowing Tupperware each year.
Kitty Jacobs, an official with an unblemished track record, presides over the whole affair with formidable precision. She decants the entries so the Judges won’t be influenced by familiar bakkies. Then she hands over the proceedings to the Chief Judge Basil Appollis. It seems he is a Judge for Life.
The crowd waits, munching nervously on hot cross buns and Marie Minnaar-McDonald’s bread. This is an annual offering in a category all its own. This year the Judges awarded it a special mention (possibly a lifetime achievement award). The contestants watch the Judges taste each and every entry.
The Judges’ comments ever year are almost always the same: Too much jam, the fish was too hot when you added the sauce, who told you to use masala, ask Woollies for your money back, you bought the spices from the wrong bubbie and the best one of all… balsamic vinegar disqualifies your entry.
The Host of the 15th annual TFIPFC says:
I thought the chance of a street being named after me is nil. So fuck it, I thought, I’ll name a competition after myself. What a way to be remembered. It started out as a great way for my friend Raymond Francis and I to over indulge in the biblical ‘water turned to wine miracle’ and herald in the Easter long weekend. Over the years although the social element is still there, it has become very competitive. I get messages like, ‘Got my fish straight from the boats’ or ‘Only buy my onions from Woollies in Constantia’. A friend was once disqualified for using balsamic vinegar and another for trying to enter the tinned variety. After an appeal to ‘Mr Pickled Fish’ himself, yours truly who doesn’t eat pickled fish and who by this time had sampled enough of the ‘miracle water’, a decision to add an ‘exotic’ category was brokered.
The celebrity judges and entrants come from all over the world. There is a floating trophy and consolation prizes consisting of Terry’s unwanted Xmas and Birthday gifts. And every year there is a controversial decision.
This year there were several. Mercia Adonis, all the way from Australia in recent times, suspected her entry had been ‘swopped’. What’s more the winner Kirsten Jade Francis let slip that she did not actually make the fish that won the floating trophy… Then there’s Gail La Vita who has been banned from the competition for life. But that’s a long and very sad story because the fish she sources from a secret Auntie somewhere in the suburbs is truly the best.
And just to prove that this tradition indeed has national (and maybe even international) status, here is a contribution from University of the Free State student Iavan Pijoos:
Growing up in Middelburg in the Eastern Cape every coloured person always knew one thing: “We’re having Pickled Fish for Easter”.
Besides the fact that we celebrated the life of Christ, the highlight of every Easter was always the pickled fish and hot cross buns. It’s a dish that used to puzzle me. While my other friends were having their normal dishes for Easter, I had pickled fish and hot cross buns year after year. In Middleburg it’s a coloured belief that you can’t do an Easter without pickled fish.
The history of pickled fish is still very vague and unclear. It presumably started with the Cape Malay cuisine that originated from a history of intermingling cultures brought together by the 17th-century slave trade. They say the recipe was originally devised by Cape Malay fishermen in an effort to preserve the catch for as long as possible. Today, the sharing of this recipe is passed down from generation to generation.
Every coloured woman starts baking at least on a Thursday afternoon. On Good Friday you attend church as a family and spend the day with your loved ones. So, families would always start preparing their dishes the day before or even two days before.
In my family it’s believed that the longer it’s been refrigerated in the sauce and onions, the better it will taste. I was brought up to understand that it’s a tradition that you eat pickled fish and hot cross buns after church.
This year pickled fish took a whole different toll on our household. My mother made pickled fish and sold it to some of her friends at work. Surprisingly enough, she made a huge profit out of it. Vanessa Pijoos, my mother said:
“I bake up to 5kg of fish every year, so that it would be enough to last us the whole weekend. This year I decided to share it with my colleagues at work and show them how we celebrate Easter.”
Here at the UFS I’ve discovered the practice is widespread:
“The tradition in our street in Kimberley is that we have to share our pickled fish with the less fortunate”, said Theo-Neil Williams, a final year LLB. Law student.
Iavan sent us his mother’s recipe and we are publishing despite knowing that it will evoke huge controversy, in the South especially. We are taking the risk of sharing the Pijoos family recipe because we are courageous here at The Journalist and because it’s going to be a long time before anyone tries it.
Pickled Fish Recipe
1. Stokvis gesout en in porsies gesny
2. Rol in meel en dan in geklitse eier. Diep braai albei kante in warm olie oor lae hitte tot bruin en gaar
3. Sny uie in ringe en kook solank eenkant tot glaserig.
Voeg by lourier blare en peper korrels
Meng in a bak vir sous en maak aan sonder klonte
- apricot jam
Gooi by uie mengsel. Laat oor stadige hitte simmer tot heerlik dik
Gooi lae vir lae in bakke – lae vis, lae sous, lae vis, lae sous
Photographs by Mary-Ann D Daniels