The Tradition of Eating Pickled Fish Over Easter Comes From …

I have always wondered where the tradition of eating pickled fish over Easter comes from, and is grateful to Ismail Mohammed whose article provides a good background, as well as to Donna Andrews and Suzall Timm for another angle on it.

If one has to ask any modern Muslim woman in Cape Town why she makes pickled fish and serves it with hot cross buns during Easter she’ll probably reply, “maar hoe nou, vra djy soo ‘n dom vraag? Daar’s nie ‘n reason nie. Ons doen dit van outyds-af!” (Now why do you ask such a stupid question? There is no reason. We do it from the old days).

Even though the pickled-fish that she might be serving on her table is the quick-fix Woolworth-type there is no doubt that she would serve it with the absolute pride that she is holding on to a tradition that has been handed down to her by her mother, her mother-in-law and her grandmother — and even though she may not even know why she will probably hand down the tradition to her daughter and one that she would expect her daughter-in-law to also carry on.

It’s only if the man of the house is a member of the orthodox Tabligh Jamaat that there probably wouldn’t be any pickled fish on the Easter weekend table. That’s because he probably would forbid the family from perpetuating a tradition of serving pickled fish which has now become synonymous with Cape Town’s mainly Coloured Christian community. Little will he know that the culture of serving traditional Cape Malay pickled fish at Easter has far more to do with the legacy of the families of Cape Malay Muslim fishermen during the early years in the Cape Colony than it having anything to do with Christianity.
Early Cape Malay fishermen sat with huge stocks of fish that came during the months of March and April. While they could sell much of their stock during Lent when orthodox Christians avoided meat just what were the the fishermen going to do with all the fish when Christians and Jews dug into their lamb on Easter Sunday or on Passover? The fishermen couldn’t throw the fish back into the sea so they copied their Dutch masters and pickled the fish —- but they just did it in a way that was for more exotic and far more delicious.

The Dutch loved their Soused Herring, a recipe that they brought down with Van Riebeeck when he sailed his ship to the Cape of Good Hope. Soused herring is raw herring soaked in a marinade that contained cider, tea, sugar, bay leaves and chopped onion. It doesn’t have any of the rich yellow color or creamy texture of a Cape Malay pickled fish that is enhanced with peppercorns, cloves and other spices to make it so much more delicious! And also snoek or stock fish which is so much more fleshy than herring. And cooked before it is marinated!

Thank heavens for the wives of the Indonesian craftsmen who were working in the early Cape. They brought down a recipe for Naniura which their mothers and grandmothers handed down to them. Naniura is a fish dish marinated for hours in lime juice and seasoned with chili and turmeric which gives the marinade its rich yellow coloring. With lime hardly in season in the Cape the innovative Indonesian housewives opted for vinegar sweetened with sugar or apricot jam and hallelujah… the Cape Malay pickled fish dish was born.

Well, this Easter weekend, the busy Cape Town housewife has probably served pickled fish on Good Friday in what has now assumed to be such a Christian tradition. Tonight to mark the Muslim holy night of Shab-e-Bharat she will serve her family her magnificently rich boeber and other delicacies. And on Easter Sunday there will probably be roast lamb on the lunch table — a tradition followed by the Jews in the marking of the Passover. She would serve these meals lovingly and passionately without knowing that in doing so she has honoured a tradition handed down by her grandmother of nourishing her family with the foods and traditions that bind together the children of Abraham with a common thread.

And from somewhere in heaven while her grandmother is smiling down at her because her granddaughter is still able to carry through these traditions there will also be a poignant sadness on the grandmother’s face when she looks down at the barren grounds that is left of District Six because it is here where the children of Abraham learnt to break bread together; and eat pickled fish on Good Friday, drink boeber on Saturday and eat lamb on Sunday and still hold dearly onto their own faiths and be respectful of each other.

And as for the hot-cross buns the grandmother in heaven will sadly lament that the nationalist government didn’t see the crossing on the buns as markings so that everyone could break bread to dip into their pickled fish and to eat their lamb with with each one having equal portions of bread.

SOME EVERYDAY RITUALS AROUND FOOD AND EATING: A Conversation about Pickled Fish by Donna Andrews and Suzall Timm

Particular foods carry very poignant and profound meanings – about spaces, emotions, relationship and social identities. Pickled fish, eating by many Cape Townians on Good Friday, might have origins in Christian observations about not eating meat, or the distinctively sweet-sour flavours of Cape Malay cooking. Its popularity over the years might even have something to do with the usefulness of a form of food preparation that doesn’t require the effort of labour over a long weekend, or the value of a dish that is easy to preserve at a time when many travels away from home. Whatever these origins, pickled fish, like many other South African popular dishes that are not considered “truly indigenous” or “really traditional”, has acquired distinctive value among those who have learned to enjoy and share it at particular times of the year. And the pleasure of the actual eating of the dish has often been part of the pleasurable process of procuring or buying fish (queuing at certain fish shops and chatting to the seller before choosing it, getting the best deal through “connections), buying spices that are now often sold over Easter as “pickled fish spices”), choosing the fish that works best (does it, in fact, have to be a white deep-sea fish or does snoek also work), comparing different methods (whose family/mother/aunt, or maybe even father) prepared it better? So, pickled fish is incredibly ritualized, gesturing towards the complex networks and affiliations that eating and tasting – both individually and collectively – so often give rise to, and making one sharply aware of the complexities and fluidities of, among other things, “culture”, “indigeneity” and “identity”. In this conversation, Donna Andrews and Suzall Timm reflect on these and other processes.

Dear Suzall,

It struck me that it might be rather odd carrying pickled fish back to Johannesburg (JHB) post-Easter. Moreover, it was a rather precarious food to be carrying on a flight. It crossed my mind that I could buy it upon arrival in JHB at Woollies and that maybe even Spar might still have pre-packed pickled fish. Why all this hassle? What was important about taking homemade pickled fish back to JHB to share with my friends who did not make it back to Cape Town over Easter? What was so special about taking what I assume to be a Cape delicacy, made in a particular geographical space and at a certain time to JHB friends? Besides: the dish is made of picked fish and onions—curried with bay leaves, spices and is yellow in colour made with tons of vinegar and sugar. Surely this is not everyone’s idea of a treat!

I came back to JHB not with one sample of pickled fish but a tasting menu from my mom’s; my partners and aunt’s pickled fish. They each made it differently and with different types of fish. My aunt is traditional, insisting that it must be made with yellowtail, x-days before the time and with white vinegar but did not want to reveal all my gran’s secrets. My mom’s pickle is testimony to her – non-traditional and non-stereotypical methods – whilst making it palatable for all (so less vinegar and no sugar). She also avoids the traditional fish one associates with pickled fish. My partner’s mom combines the traditional with my favourite fish (snoek) and made for her son’s pallet – she was on the job for weeks. Scouting for the best prices and as snoek from her fishmonger. She requires special pickled fish spice from Fargo trading store. She is relentless. Her story of the pickled fish is the hunt for the spice, the smelling and finding of the perfect bay leaves, the type of onion and feeling that it has the correct firmness and sweet smell, it is standing and talking with unfamiliar people about something that is familiar over Easter. It is an intimate dance with others to commune collectively.

Across many pickled fish meals, the chatter and numerous discussions ensured which fish was on the green or red list; which was in or out of season; how expensive the fish is, etc. People seemed aware of WWF-SASSI list. The marketing and branding of the green economy and concerns about climate change are in full flight. An engagement about the politics and culture of fish and the fisherfolk and how we live in relation to fish and fishing communities is however absent at the table.

In writing, it occurs to me that “being in conversation with the pickled fish” is about “who is the fish?” and “the fishing community.” This is a continuation of an analysis I started in my dissertation about fish as part of nature and part of the larger web of life. In other words, it is much more than food or fish as a highly nutritional protein. Fish is political, cultural, and social, or as Da Costa argues polyvalent. My analysis makes visible the relationship between the fish and those who catch, prepare, sell and eat it. It puts forward that the fish intrinsically linked and embedded within social relations and is part of nature. Reducing fish to economics asserts one type of value above others. Reducing fish to the sale of fish as food in the market is to place food outside of its multi-dimensional and multi-layered ambit.

The study by Isaacs shows the relevance and significance of fish as part of community networks, livelihood and solidarity. Drawing on her study, I argue that for these working-class poor communities in the Cape, fish is not frozen, packaged hake bought in the hypermarket, or farmed salmon and trout found in the chilled aisles of expensive supermarkets like Woolworths. Fish is snoek. It is what is bought at the end of day on the main road in your area, or on Sunday morning near the graveyard. It is bought from the local fish seller out of the back of his bakkie. It is a personal interaction – you decide which fish, how you want it cut whilst you chat with the seller and hear about the state of fishing and how the fishermen are doing. It is Sunday afternoons with the family, playing cards or dominoes. It is learning how to count, laugh and be communal. It is social and cultural cohesion. It is about the collective contribution to getting the fish to the table. The collecting of the money, buying, cleaning, preparing, serving, disposing of the bones, are all part of a whole. Everyone has a role when the fish is socially embedded outside the formal market. This fish is life, history, community, cultural and communion. This, however, has increasingly come under threat due to the commodification and commercialisation of fisheries.

Suzall, I look forward to hearing about your pickle fish delights and reflections.


Your conception of who is the fish in your piece is very appealing leading me to think of the fish on the plate with the hot cross buns as a ‘regulatory space’ that organises social life during Easter.

It all started during lunch break at the office when my colleague shared some of his pickled fish with me. He makes pickled fish every year over Easter. I was taken aback that Muslims also make pickled fish. I grew up learning that pickled fish and hot cross buns is what ‘Christians’ do. I recall asking my mother a Thursday night after cutting countless onions, “why do we eat pickled fish on Easter Friday?” She explained, “the fish signifies the body of Christ. We do not eat meat on Easter Friday because meat symbolises the flesh of Jesus Christ who suffered for us on the cross.” She then added, “it is for this reason, we eat pickled fish and hot cross buns to remember how he died on the cross and resurrected on the third day.” The story sounded fascinating and I left it at the idea of the fish and hot cross buns as the way of honouring the memory of Christ on the cross.

This year, after discovering that pickled fish is not only made by Christians, I went home to Worcester thinking more carefully about pickled fish and who makes it. Over the past 10 years, I journey by train to Worcester over the Easter period to eat my mother’s pickled fish and hot cross buns. While traveling on the train I overhear a young ‘Coloured’ woman tired after a day of working asking an older Xhosa woman where she is traveling to. The woman told her she is going to Worcester and she is looking forward to her aunt’s pickled fish. The young woman in surprise looked at her and asked – do you also eat pickled fish? The older woman nodded and said yes, we do. The young woman smiled and said she never knew that Xhosas eat pickled fish. The older woman smiled and said just like you we also eat pickled fish and hot cross buns.

As I sit down, in the kitchen in Worcester, I have one piece of snoek pickled fish and a piece of hake pickled with two hot cross buns on my plate. While eating this fish, the many years of eating from this plate, no longer symbolizes the body of Christ instead I reflect on the conversations with my colleague, the women on the train, and the story my mother told me many years ago…

The plate, pickled fish and hot cross buns with butter represent what Bruno Latour would call a collective or assemblage of animate and inanimate actants. I will refer to this collective of animate and inanimate actants as a ‘regulatory space’ that produces effects and regulate how we interact with others and the plate during Easter.

The plate and the silver tin foil in which the buns are assembled are regulators that come alive and shapes the way we engage with each other. Both are mediators of relationships that link us to our taste buds, to family, friends, and many others.

The pickled fish and hot cross buns on the plate play a regulatory role during the Easter period. This collective does not normally go together any other time of the year except for Easter. For Christians, this collective comes together to act as a symbol of remembering the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Luke 24:41, Jesus showed his hands and feet to his disciples who did not believe him. He asked them if they have anything to eat and the disciples gave him a piece of fish which he took and ate in their presence. The act of eating the fish was to dispel the disbelief of his disciples. However, every Easter the plate of fish and hot cross buns is a religious symbol for Christians as they reflect on Christ’s sacrifice and the wondrous miracle of his resurrection.

The plate of pickled fish and hot cross buns collective also regulates how mothers and daughters interact in its production. It has become a site of intergenerational sharing of knowledge where mothers pass their knowledge – whether it’s in the form of a story or a recipe to their daughters.

The plate of pickled fish and hot cross buns collective also regulates the social interactions that happen around it. Family and friends gather around the plate on Easter weekend and connect with each other.

The significance of the ‘regulatory space’ in the production of food and culture is to show how we are all equal parts in the partaking of food. The living, the organic, the animate and inanimate are simultaneously objects and subjects, key actants in the ‘regulatory space’ making food knowledges and experiences different yet similar through the plate and the tin foil in which the buns come in. 

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