Cape Malay Pickled Fish

Down here in the Cape you always know Easter is just around the corner when a seasonal preoccupation takes hold of our beloved city; yes, I’m talking about our pickled fish obsession.

Like tinsel before Christmas, it seemingly comes out of nowhere.

Overnight supermarkets load tables with tubs of this sweet & sour delight, whole yellowtail is suddenly on the Specials board of your local fishmonger and, most tellingly, internet and food blog searches for pickled fish recipes sky rocket. All pickled portents that tell us one thing – Easter is upon us.

Before its association with Easter, pickled fish was simply a tasty way for the Cape Malay community to make the most of an abundance of fish during the summer months by preserving the fish – allowing them to keep the fish for an extended period of time. This classic Cape Malay dish is the perfect example of the heavy influence of Malaysian and Indonesian culture on Cape cuisine as the pickling liquid is more akin to a sweet and sour curry than any other methods of pickling fish.  Traditionally snoek and yellowtail were the favoured catch as their dense flesh withstands the pickling process especially well, but flaker fish such as cob and hake can also be used although I prefer using yellowtail.

Of course there is also the small matter of what you should serve your pickled fish with.

The most common way is to simply have it with buttered white bread, but for those of you with a sense of adventure you can always try it with another Easter treat – hot cross buns. I know this might sound like a crazy and unappealing combination, but there really is method in this Easter mash-up madness. Call it an Easter miracle, but for some reason it really does taste amazingly good!

Pickled fish and hot cross buns; yep, welcome to the true taste of the Cape.

For more South African recipes from the Muddled Pantry, please click HERE

Cape Malay Pickled Fish: Serves 4 to 6

  • 800g yellowtail or alternative (see above), skinned and filleted
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • Plain flour
  • 500ml brown vinegar
  • 5 to 7 tbsp. white sugar (depending on your preference)
  • 2 onions, thickly sliced
  • 2 tsp. ground turmeric
  • 1.5 tbsp. mild curry powder
  • 1 tbsp. whole black peppercorns
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 8 dried allspice berries (optional)
  • A handful of golden sultanas
  • 1.5 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. cornflour, mixed with a splash of water (optional)


  1. First make your pickling liquid by adding the sliced onions, vinegar, sugar, turmeric, curry powder, peppercorns, bay leaves and salt in to a saucepan. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 10 to 15 minutes or until the onions begin to soften slightly. If you’d prefer a thicker “sauce”, add the cornflour slurry right at the end and simmer for a couple more minutes. Take off the heat and leave to cool down till warm to the touch
  2. Cut the fish into 4cm portions and season with salt and pepper. Lightly dust the fish in some flour
  3. Heat the oil in a large, deep frying pan. Working in batches, fry the fish for about 5 minutes per side. Don’t over cook the fish as it will continue to cook through during the pickling process
  4. Drain the cooked fish pieces on kitchen paper
  5. Layer half of the fish in the bottom of a deep non-reactive bowl (i.e. glass or ceramic). Sprinkle over half of the sultanas and pour over a third of the still warm pickling liquid (onions and all). Add the remaining fish and sultanas and pour over the rest of the liquid. Make sure that all the fish is covered by the pickling liquid
  6. Cover and allow to cool completely before storing it for at least 24 hours in either the fridge or in a cool spot


  1. Greater compliment hath no man – I have just made my pickled fish using your recipe instead of the one I have been using for more than twenty years. I will report back after Easter!


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