30 March 2024


Where does the South African tradition of eating pickled fish at Easter come from?

It's origin can be traced back to the early days at the Cape. One of the earliest known recipes is from Marie CLOETE, a wealthy Cape landowner in the 1700s, who left her handwritten recipe for future generations. Lady Anne BARNARD visited Meerlust farm in 1798 and wrote that she was served “fish of the nature of cod, pickled with turmarick”.

In 1653, a year after the Dutch East India Company established a refreshment station at the Cape, the first slaves were imported from Batavia (present-day Jakarta). The Muslim women were often cooks and were known for their use of spices, especially those from the East. Slaves came mostly from the East Indies - India, Indonesia and Malaya - they became known as Cape Malays and brought with them a range of skills like millinery, cobbling, masonry, and fragrant cooking. 

Over time, it became a Cape Malay tradition for families to spend the four-day Easter weekend camping near the Kramat (Faure) along the banks of the Eerste River in Macassar. They took food with them that did not need to be refrigerated – typically pickled fish, which could be kept in glass bottles or earthenware jars for up to a week. In those days fish was plentiful and affordable. 

A Kramat is where the holy men of Islam where laid to rest when they died. These men were often exiled to Cape from other Dutch colonies. Sheikh Yusuf is regarded as the founder of Islam in South Africa. He was an Indonesian royal who was exiled to Cape Town via Ceylon in 1694, after a failed uprising against the Dutch. His Kramat is visited by Muslim followers as part of a pilgrimage to pay their respects. 

Another story of origin that links to Easter stems from the fishermen not going out to sea during the holy week. Without daily fresh fish, people preserved fresh fish by pickling in spiced sauce.

Pickled fish is made with firm, white fish pan-fried or oven-baked before being covered in a curried pickling sauce with lots of sliced onions. It is left for 3 to 5 days before being eaten cold. It is also known as kerrievis, piekelvis or ingeledge vis in Afrikaans. The preferred fish is geelbek (Cape salmon) or geelstert (yellowtail), although hake and snoek is also used.

Some people batter the fish before cooking it, others don't. Some people cook it and then put it in the sauce, others cook it in the sauce. 

It is always eaten cold, usually accompanied by bread and butter. Some people serve it with fresh bread and hanepootkonfyt (sweet grape jam). These days many people eat their pickled fish with hot cross buns. 

It is enjoyed, especially at Easter, by Muslims, Christians, and non-religious people all over South Africa.