A big Capetonian Easter tradition is good old-fashioned stain-your-fingers-yellow Pickled Fish on Good Friday, and no-one can make it like my Granny can (inner child sings *my granny’s better than your granny, welakapela*). I haven’t been home for Easter since… 2007? And so I’ve been missing Pickled Fish – the stuff in the shop is a lumo-yellow citric acid solution containing chunks of rubber, and even the homemade type doesn’t really cut it with me if the home is not my Gran’s.
The things is, her’s is soooo good that there is no point even attempting to make it myself. I don’t beat myself up about it too much, I mean she’s got a good head start of about 40 years and practise has made perfect; so instead of dismal failures and a Bad Friday, I decided to make it my own and give it the shmancy treatment with … da da da dum (that was a drumroll) … Prawns!
A note on this dish, for those who are not familiar with it (and there are so many – lots of people thought I was referring to rollmops. Ew! Those aren’t for eating, they should be used as punishment for shoplifting!):
The fish isn’t really pickled as in, preserved and stored in a glass jar to be kept on top of the kitchen cupboard until kingdom come; it’s a Cape Malay dish that is sour, sweet and spicy, to be prepared a day or so in advance for the flavours to develop and for the onions to become crunchy. You may be shocked initially at the intensity of colour and flavour but it gets addictive. Traditionally, no red meat is eaten on Good Friday hence the fish (or prawns) – kind of like trifle at Christmas, only significantly yellower and fishier.
For Pickled Prawns to serve 4-6:
350g-ish prawns, preferably with the shells on – but not the heads because I don’t like my food to look at me reproachfully. The shells contain LOTS of flavour.
oil, for frying
3 teaspoons of finely chopped garlic
1 teaspoon of finely chopped ginger – finally! I got to use my grater-plate
2 tablespoons of masala (this is a little dicey – not all masalas are equal; get a mild spicy Malay-style one rather than a Durban hot chilli one).
2 teaspoons of ground cumin
2 teaspoons of ground coriander seed
1 teaspoon of turmeric
3 tablespoons of smooth apricot jam
1.5 teaspoons of salt
(yes I agree, it is a very long list. it is also very worth it)
1/2 cup of white grape vinegar
2 cups of water
100g brown sugar
2 bay leaves
Lots of fresh, crusty bread for serving, plus large bibs to protect your finery while you eat, and finger bowls if you want to be posh.
Allow the prawns to defrost in the fridge if they were frozen, and pour off all the residual water and coating gunk that comes with them. Do not put yourself off them for good by having thoughts of “cockroaches of the sea” when you see their little legs *grimaces, then gets over it*.
You’re supposed to do this in 2 separate cooking vessels but I’m all for using less dishes and as few stove plates as possible, so heat some oil in a medium-sized saucepan and fry the prawns until JUST cooked – a few minutes at most, they should just turn from translucent to opaque white. Decant them into a glass bowl and cover to keep warm (Ile de Pain mentions using plastic as an alternative – but it will never, ever NOT be yellow again afterwards).
Slice the onions into rings, and fry in a little oil until they start to soften. Add the garlic, ginger, masala, cumin, coriander and turmeric and cook for 2 minutes while stirring so it doesn’t catch on the bottom. Add everything else (except for the bread, duh) – the original recipe mentioned tying things up in a little muslin sachet blah blah blah, that just sounds like work and if you’re stupid enough to bite into a whole clove then you probably deserve to. And it is more authentic with all the bits in – my Gran is very glamorous but you won’t catch her wafting gossamer bits of muslin around the kitchen. Simmer for 8-10 minutes, then pour over the prawns.
Refrigerate uncovered until cool, then cover, and um, continue to refrigerate. The original recipes says to let it sit for at least 3 hours – I beg to differ. It needs minimum 24 hours for the flavours to blend and become bosom buddies… after only 3 hours the acidity was far too sharp and the bitterness from the turmeric had me worried that I’d ruined some perfectly good prawns. The next night, however, I was up to my elbows in prawnshells, with bright yellow cuticles… Serve with lots of bread to mop up all that juicy goodness.
It’s going to be a good Good Friday :-).
PS: I know this is so corny. But do you think that prawn stars wear… fish nets?
Sorry. I couldn’t help myself.