Not even lockdown will stop Easter's pickled fish tradition

Easter may not be as exciting this year as the nationwide lockdown has restricted, and prohibited, many things. Family gatherings, Good Friday mass, Easter egg hunts with friends — none of this will form part of this weekend’s celebrations.

But come what may, pickled fish is here to stay.

The homemade dish may be enjoyed a little differently this year, but you can bet that vinegar-infused aromas will still waft through some of the city’s streets as households uphold an age-old tradition, despite the lockdown.

Traditionally made with portions of fried line fish, curry powder, onions, vinegar and sugar, pickled fish is believed to have originated from Cape Malay cooking practices.

While the tangy seafood dish is not explicitly linked with the Christian Easter holiday, for many South Africans it is the meal of choice in lieu of red meat on Good Friday.

Buffalo Flats resident Doris Freeks says pickled fish has been a part of her Easter celebrations since she was a young girl and this year would be no different.

“I’m 71 now and I’ve been eating pickled fish on Easter since my childhood. We never eat red meat on Good Friday, it’s always been pickled fish and we enjoy it so much,” said Freeks, who stocked up on frozen fish a week before the lockdown came into effect.

“I got all my fish three weeks ago, but with the lockdown we’re not gathering with the family, so it’s just me and my daughter this year,” said Freeks. “We’re going to enjoy our pickled fish here sitting on the stoep.”

Jelta Fredericks, 67, said one of the best parts about the pickled fish tradition was sharing it with neighbours and friends.

“What’s so nice is that every year we all make pickled fish in the community and we swap a few pieces with our neighbours. We all make it to our own taste, so it’s so nice to taste the differences,” said Fredericks who also lives in Buffalo Flats.

It will be a very different Easter and a little bit sad, but we will make the best of it

“This year, I don’t think there will be any exchanges, no matter how close we live to each other, because of the lockdown. It will be a very different Easter and a little bit sad, but we will make the best of it.”

Mark and Camilla McArthur, owners of the popular local fish market Sea Spirit, said despite the lockdown the market had been  buzzing over the last two weeks, with many rushing to make their fresh fish purchases in time for the Easter weekend. 

“We’ve only opened on certain days of the week, but people are crazy for their fish. We’ve been really busy,” said Camilla.

She uses WhatsApp and text messages to inform customers when the market will be open.

“We’ve had loyal customers for over 10 years so we’re dedicated to getting their fish to them over this time and we always make sure to stock up before Easter because this is our peak time.

“We have a lot of frozen goods and have managed to get fresh line fish from the PE boats,” she said.

Mark, who runs the market at the East London harbour, has put measures in place to ensure the market could implement physical distancing precautions.

“Our food and restaurant side isn’t open during this time, just our fresh fish side. The lockdown has hit us hard, but we’re lucky to be busy and be making enough to pay the staff who are still working,” he said.

“We also usually have staff making pickled fish over this time too, but we’re not able to sell that over the lockdown period.”

Sea Spirit was open for business from Tuesday to Thursday this week, but would be closed over the Easter weekend.

Freeks said her pickled fish preparations would start on Wednesday and by Friday the familiar smell of pickled fish would definitely be in the air in her neighbourhood.

There’s always a smell of pickled fish at this time of year. From Parkside to Buffalo Flats you can always smell it when you’re in the area at this time

“There’s always a smell of pickled fish at this time of year. From Parkside to Buffalo Flats you can always smell it when you’re in the area at this time,” said Freeks.

While Freeks had shared her recipe, passed down to her by generations before, with her daughters, she said they had each found their own unique way of making the traditional dish.

“I just do the frying now. My daughters told me their pickled fish is better so they make it now,” Freeks laughed.

Freeks’s daughter Taryn, 29, said she and her sister had found ways to modernise their mom’s traditional recipe.

“Mom makes it the old-school way with curry powder. We’ve just made it a bit more modern and used different spices, like fish masala, to give it a bit of a twist. Ours has that sweet and spicy flavour,” said Taryn.

“We also add apricot jam, which makes a really nice gravy to balance out the bitterness. Mom just fries the fish for us and then she can rest a bit.”

On the other hand, Fredericks said she’d be making her pickled fish the traditional way using curry powder and bay leaves.

“Many people use masala now, but the cooking is the same — you pre-fry the fish, then make your curry sauce, put it together and let it stand for a day or two.

“The longer it stands in the curry sauce, the nicer it is. It’s so lekker after a few days.

“I’ve been married 40 years and we’ve never had a Good Friday without pickled fish in our house.”

She said while she and others had fish in the freezer, some might not be so lucky.

“It’ll be a sad Easter for those who didn’t have the money to buy fish before the lockdown or those who didn’t have the chance to go to the harbour to get their fish at a good price. We’re very fortunate."

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