They say that smell is the greatest memory trigger of all the senses. I think that's probably true for me, along with music. The citrussy, sweet scent of Freesias that would fill my home in Johannesburg in the summertime, remind me of my mother in an instant. Youth Dew perfume, auntie Pat (a scent I still associate with posh ladies). The veld (African savvanah) after rain... the African bush. Wild roses...summertime in Nova Scotia. Kouros aftershave... Billy (9th grade boyfriend).
Frangipanis, lemons, corriander, curry, turmeric and ginger, will sweep me back to our little house in Cape Town, that we bought shortly after Cliff and I were married. It had a frangapani tree in the front yard, it's grey gnarled branches softened by its delicate white, waxy flowers with sunset coloured centres. It's exotic scent strongest at night to lure sphinx moths to pollinate them.
In our backyard two huge lemons trees, would spoil us with their abundance and shade the small outdoor table we would sit at for lunch on lazy weekends. For some reason my olfactory memory now plunges me back into that long-ago-place whenever I smell the combination of spices for pickled fish.
Perhaps it's the association with our long charcuturie style lunches, where pickled fish would always make an appearance, alongside fresh crusty bread. Most likely, it was the fact that we were immersed in Cape Malay flavours unique to Cape Town. A cuisine that mixes African traditions with those of the Malaysian and Indonesian slaves brought over by the Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries. A blend of spices – corriander, ginger, fennel, star anise, tamarind and, most important, turmeric – gives the food its distinctive aromatic quality.
Pickled Fish is a classic South African Cape Malay recipe that is usually made around Easter and eaten with spicy hot cross buns. It is the perfect picnic food and at the first hint of a warm day, eaten with buttered spicy buns it is really quite sublime. Do not be put off of the idea of pickled fish! The combination of spices (left to be absorbed by the fish for 3 days) creates a sort of alchemy that produces a fragrant, spicy, sweet, acidic deliciousness. I use hake, when I can get it for this recipe but any thick, firm white fish will work.
3 pounds (1.5kg) firm, white fish fillets
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
2-3 large onions sliced into rings
2 cloves garlic finely chopped
1 teaspoon mild curry powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, toasted & crushed
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the fish in a baking dish, season with salt and pepper and dust with flour. Bake for 15 to minutes. Remove the fish from the oven and allow to cool before cutting it into smaller portions of about 2 inches each.
2. In a saucepan over a medium heat, sauté the onion until soft and translucent. Add the garlic, curry powder, ground turmeric, ginger and ground coriander and stir through.
3. Add the vinegar, water, bay leaves and sugar. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Season with freshly ground pepper and salt to taste.
4. Allow the sauce to simmer gently. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for about 20 minutes.
6. In a large dish or jar, pack the fish fillets in layers covering each layer with the sauce. Cover and allow the fish to marinade in the fridge for at least 48 hours before eating.
Serve cold with crusty baguette or hot cross buns.