I made our family pickled fish recipe for the first time last week. I used a beautiful fresh piece of Kabeljou, bought at the OZFM. The fish was coated in a mix of red and green wet masalas, extra crushed garlic, tumeric and salt and fried off. It was tempting to just stop at that stage of the preparation and eat the hot masala fried fish straight out of the pan. Masala fried fish always reminds me of the day we named Shivam, when one of my uncles braaied fish in our backyard. It was a steaming hot, festive night, and the spicy fish was a symbol of generosity and family.
The pickling liquid for the fish has an unbelievable amount of cooked down onion (an equal weight of onion and fish), vinegar, curry powder & curry leaves. I made the curry powder from scratch – despite there being strong family views on the brand of curry powder to use. The recipe just says “curry leaves”. My mom told me that one aunt uses the leaves both whole and finely chopped, adding a deep fragrance to the pickling liquid.
Pickled fish is an exercise in patience. The longer you leave it, the more delicious it is. It’s an adult version of the marshmallow test for delayed gratification.
This is a dish that symbolises life before forced removals, when my paternal family lived in South End in Port Elizabeth in a mixed race community. The dish is a mash up of Cape Malay heritage with Indian punch and panache – it is a beautiful thing, this cross-cultural dish that is greater than the sum of its parts. I can imagine the sharing of recipes between neighbours, in a world where kids played in the street and homes were not separated by 3 metre high walls and electric fences. A world where the gulab jamun meets the koesister.
Forced removals were devastating on many levels ranging from the immediate to the multi-generational. There was the trauma of displacement, lost homes and resettlement in out-of-the-way areas. And the profound shifting from neighbourliness to otherness. What was once familiar was altered into the hierarchy of Apartheid, a crude ranking of better than and less than.
In the work context, I spend a lot of time thinking about how diversity and inclusivity are necessary for innovation. There’s some magic that happens when there is vigorous debate (in an environment that offers psychological safety). What we sometimes forget is how much energy othering takes – we divert energy into resisting each other, feeling threatened, bracing. Living from a place of love and compassion frees up energy for creativity, for innovation, for novel solutions to seemingly intractable problems.
The Indian riff on pickled fish is a thread between a life where diversity was the norm to a world where we are rebuilding familiarity, learning how to be with each other’s pain, dismantling the walls and reclaiming the streets. It’s an utterly delicious way to live.