Traditional South African Food: Well and truly pickled
Cass Abrahams is synonymous with Cape Malay food. She speaks to Hilary Biller about the Easter tradition of pickled fish
MY grandmother believed nobody should cook on Good Friday - and no stove should be lit, says Cass Abrahams. "She would make pickled fish on the Wednesday before the Easter weekend and enough so it would last till Easter Monday."
Abrahams tells how her family would eat pickled fish and hot cross buns for breakfast on Good Friday before going to a prayer service - a very long one in the Johannesburg City Hall - and have the same afterwards. "With black tea," she says. "My grandmother believed you never mixed fish and milk ... many believed that if you mixed the two you got some kind of dreadful disease. But that's changing now as the younger generation become more educated."
And the unlikely combination of pickled fish with hot cross buns? "I think it started in District Six where communities used to live together - Muslims, Jews and Catholics. There are lots of examples of this (crossing of cultures) in the Muslim community."
Abrahams is well known for her ability to blend spices and her pickled fish is no exception.
"I mix my own spices - cumin and coriander, masala and turmeric. Yes, and garlic, but no ginger.
"I think I was born with the ability to think of food in my brain and bring it down to my tongue. I can layer a dish with different spices. I know what spice will bring out the different flavours."
When making pickled fish, onions are crucial. "Sliced and separated into rings, never chopped, never fried. Boiled in vinegar, they must be crisp. My husband's granny always told me that the onions must go 'crick crick' in your mouth," Abrahams says, laughing.
When it comes to fish, it is snoek or yellowtail. "Snoek is the big favourite in the Cape because the snoek are running at this time - and because of the thick backbone. People just love to suck out the juices from the bone."
Abrahams describes the week before Easter as "pickle fish madness", adding that everyone in the Cape is making the dish then. "A week before Easter the price of snoek jumps from R39/kg to between R89 and R120/kg.
"There are many countries around the world that pickle fish - just think of the Scandinavians. In the Cape, it is a way of life and I hope it never dies out," she says.
And how does the expert prefer her pickled fish? "I love it with freshly baked bread from the shop, hot out of the oven with lots of butter.
"Funny how all these years we never mixed milk and fish, but we always had lots of butter on our bread and hot cross buns!"
EATING FISH WITH A CLEAR CONSCIENCE
MANY of SA's marine resources are over-exploited and the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (Sassi) at www.wwfsassi.co.za has listed seafood in three categories so consumers can make an informed choice.
RED: Unsustainable species and those that are illegal to sell in South Africa, according to the Marine Living Resources Act.
ORANGE: Species that have associated reasons for concern, either because of poor stocks, worrying population trends, or other negative environmental issues associated with the fishery that the species is caught in.
GREEN: The best managed, most sustainable choices available.
For pickled fish, choose from the green list if snoek and yellowtail are unavailable. Choices include angelfish, dorado, gunard, kob and elf/shad.
FishMS offers details on seafood status. SMS the species to 079 499 8795 and you will receive a colour-category response.