As acerbic journalist Lin Sampson once wrote, snoek is the most underrated fish in South Africa. And it certainly is the king of fishes, if you take a little trouble to track it down. A long, thin species of snake mackerel, snoek can be purchased fresh from the docks along all along the coast of the Western Cape of South Africa, as coloured people have been fishing and eating snoek for generations.
Snoek is usually line-caught, which makes it a particularly sustainable source of protein as you will be directly supporting smale scale fishing. Most people don’t know that it is packed with as much omega 3 as salmon, with most of the goodness lying in the layer of fat between the skin and the flesh. The glistening snoek is usually flayed and salted directly after it is caught, to prevent the flesh from becoming soft. This process is unique in that it locks in all that succulent natural flavour of the fish.
Fresh snoek is usually kept whole and braaied (or barbecued) over an open fire or wrapped in aluminium foil with butter and seasoning. A traditional way of serving snoek is with baked sweet potatoes, which is the perfect sweet foil for the salty and succulent snoek. In the Cape Malay community, snoek is a foundation for many dishes including fish bobotie, tarts and pâtés and snoek kop sop where the head and bones of the fish are made into a delicately spiced and wholesome broth.
I first ate snoek as a young child when my mother and I made our annual 900km pilgrimage to the Western Cape. It was always a treat to eat freshly grilled snoek and chips on the quay in the holiday town of Hermanus, feeling like we knew something the tourists didn’t. The seasoning that is sprinkled on the fish after it is fried is usually a combination of modern American seasoning and a spice mix in the Cape Malay tradition that includes black and white pepper. When J and I met almost 18 years ago we went back to that same fish and chips café (which sadly doesn’t exist anymore) and sat on the quay looking out to sea, relishing a generous portion of juicy snoek with thick-cut fries doused in salt and malt vinegar. I will never forget his face when he tasted snoek for the first time. He still remembers it as one of the best things he has ever eaten.
Another memorable moment was when I attended an arts festival in Oudtshoorn one year, known for its celebration of Afrikaans culture, which usually means a lot of beer and barbecue. But this year the organisers had done something amazing, which they haven’t repeated since. A giant marquee tent was set up outside the museum. As you entered you were given a tasting glass, after which you proceeded from stall to stall where all manner of traditional dishes and local wines were laid out. But the best of all was braaied snoek and charred, syrupy sweet potato that had been cooked whole in the embers. This was served with a slice of home baked whole wheat bread spread with butter and korrelkonfyt (whole grape preserve). Simplicity itself, this is an inspired combination which many South Africans don’t even know about.
Of course the only drawback of eating snoek is that you have to remove the long and spindly bones as you eat it. This is the main reason it is often rejected in favour of easy to eat boring old hake. Believe me, this a mistake as I have seen that same look of satisfied surprise on the faces of friends from other countries. Like shucking oysters, a bit of hard work makes a meal all the more enjoyable.
Whenever I make a fire outdoors, snoek is a must for the braai. I glaze a whole snoek with apricot jam and sprinkle it with toasted flaked almonds before serving it with the perennial favourite – baked sweet potato. The best part of the fish surrounds the stomach, as this is the most succulent and fatty part; the good kind of fat, of course! Smoorsnoek (directly and rather poetically translated as ‘smothered snoek’) is another delicious traditional South African recipe. As it gently braises, the delicious savoury juices of the fish becomes amalgamated with cubed potatoes and peeled tomatoes. It is one of the few dishes I make that requires very little in the way of spices, just a blade of mace and a sprinkling of nutmeg, finishing with freshly squeezed lemon juice.
For the recipe below I use smoked snoek, which is readily available during the autumn and winter months, making it useful when it’s difficult to get hold of the fresh version. This delicately spiced curry is not only halaal but also dairy and gluten free.
FRAGRANT SMOKED SNOEK with CHERRY TOMATOES
200g smoked snoek, bones removed
Half a tin coconut cream
3 T cold pressed coconut oil
Dash of white wine vinegar
200g large cherry tomatoes such as Romanita by ZZ2, halved
1 large red onion, thinly sliced into half moons
½ tsp yellow mustard seeds
Two pinches cayenne pepper, or to taste
½ tsp fennel seeds, lightly pounded in a mortar and pestle
1/3 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp homemade garam marsala
2 T gluten-free vegetable stock powder such as Nature’s Choice (not a cube)
½ tsp turmeric
Fresh ginger, grated, to taste
2 T sweet chilli sauce
Dash of lemon pepper
Sprinkling of white pepper
1-3 fresh lemons or limes, cut into wedges, for serving
Begin by removing the bones from the snoek. It seems quite arduous but it’s not too bad and totally worth it! I usually don’t remove the skin but tear it up into bits, but this is entirely up to you. Set aside. Halve the cherry tomatoes lengthways and also set aside.
Peel and cut the onion in half, slicing each half into paper thin half-moons. Preheat a pan and gently toast the mustard seeds until golden and just beginning to pop. Quickly remove and set aside.
Melt the coconut oil in the same pan, add the onions and sauté until transparent. Add the ginger, cumin and fennel seeds and keep stirring. Turn up the heat and add the vinegar to reduce for a minute or two.
Add the cayenne pepper, turmeric, coconut cream and stock powder, adding a dash of water if the coconut cream is too thick. Cook for a few minutes with the lid on before stirring through the halved tomatoes and the flaked snoek. Lastly stir through the mustard seeds, sweet chilli sauce and lemon pepper.
Cover and cook for 10-12 minutes, until the tomatoes are squishy but still retain their shape. Check seasoning and add the faintest dusting of white pepper, be sparing with this as it could overpower the dish.
Serve with steamed green beans and Basmati rice.