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THE WAY WE LIVED. 18. Snoek Town calling.  [9min read] [Part two] 

Part two

THE CATCH[continued]

It was always good to come across the net fishermen hauling in their catch when I drove down the Muizenberg-to-Standfontein road. One rushed over to provide the obligatory extra hand to bring in the net. A large enough catch meant a free fish for the helpers. Otherwise, a freshly bought, twitching snoek [pronounced “snook”] or two in the car boot were headed for home and the dinner table.

We never bought snoek at a fish shop or a supermarket. One of my favourite ways of snoeking was much more relaxed. After a successful dive trip, we would pull up where the roadside snoek hawkers were selling their fish. We bartered our crayfish or perlemoen – abalone – for their snoek. The swop was simple – their best fish for my best catch. There were times that someone who had stopped to buy a snoek would join in the bartering and buy us a snoek for his pick of a crayfish. Hey, my fish-dealer, great-grandfather Scott must have smiled down on me – yes, he of the mot pikkelaar days [ see part one of Snoek Town Calling].

How I enjoyed coming home after those dive trips to prepare a dinner of steamed crayfish, fried snoek and tenderised perlemoen slices. Add rice smothered in tomato bredie – salsa – and again, I drool at the thought. I probably need a bib with all the dribbling when I write about my favourite foods!

THE PREPARATION

Its smooth skin means that no descaling is ever needed, but the snoek has to be vlekked. The filleting requires a sharp knife to lay open the fish. Cut down each side of the backbone to lay open the fish before removing the guts. My old mentor Rob in Napier will probably shake his head if my description is wrong!

The best months for snoek are the months with an “R” in it. They are the warmer months, and the better quality fish results from the greater availability of food. On splitting open the fish, it is reassuring to see the fat content of a prime quality fish, specially around MaRch/ApRil. Poor quality snoek was pap [pronounced “pup”, for soft] – rather thin and the meat can be almost mushy. “Papsnoek”, in the early days, was mostly sold to the poor – probably in the Depression years and during World War 2 when the Brits would not eat the soft fish even in a UK desperate for food.

One keeps the spine and the head and always hopes it is a female with roe in it. The whole fish can be cut transversely into ten centimetre long strips for frying. To braai snoek, it is best to barbeque it whole. One can remove the head, but never throw it away! That is heresy! There should be a law against it!! The snoek head in a simple broth with garlic and onions or a curried dish is essential in any snoek lover’s diet. Plain fried snoek head is also a favourite of many. Ask ZF!

Whole snoek is the way to go if it is to be heavily salted and/or dried or smoked. These methods went back centuries to a time before refrigeration, but they lived on because the different ways to eat or cook them remain popular. How many people still do this today in our “instant coffee” lives? Feel free to mail me!

THE EATING

Fried

Fried is the best way to go. Salt, pepper and a light dusting of flour is my favourite style. Add a touch of lemon pepper, maybe even garlic salt – it really works, just watch the salt content! Deep-fried, battered fish is the domain of fish shops, and many locals make trips to Hout Bay for their fry served with slap chips [that’s pronounced slup] – literally “limp chips.” They are long French fries that are not crisp, and they droop a bit when held in the fingers. For visiting expatriates, a Hout Bay trip is a fish and chip pilgrimage to Cape Town’s scenic third harbour.

My favourite bit of the snoek is the meat left on the backbone. Sucking the last bits of fish off the spine is the ultimate! There will be people salivating as they read this! My second favourite is the thicker part of the flesh. Others prefer the thinner belly bits which I am still happy to swop with Zonjia for her chunky bits – I mean the fishy bits, of course. Okay, all of her too!! Snoek-eating is also quite safe because the bones are long and thin. The smaller sharp bones from other fish are more dangerous.

One needs slap chips with one’s snoek. The vinegar rounds things off a bit more. When I could afford it as a youngster [ a rare event] how I loved eating fish and chips in the bus. Of course it was wrapped in vinegar-soaked newspaper. Yes, like many of my vintage, we survived to tell the tale! It was the best way to digest our propagandist news! This was always done upstairs with the intermittent beautiful Cape Town vistas in the distance, usually on one’s way home. There was nothing worse than sitting upstairs and one smelt someone else enjoying a fishy meal a few rows away.

Rice or mashed potato smothered in tomato breedie – salsa – with added colour and taste from gem squash, pumpkin and patat – sweet potato – are easy additives to my best meal.

Braai

The snoek fillets can be smothered in different marinades or fish masala and then fried or grilled or braaied – BBQed. A slight blackening of the masala is needed to get a good roasting of the curried ingredients. I hardly ever needed Mrs Balls chutney when the snoek was fried plain or curried. Oak wood is critical for the enhanced flavour!

Stews, Bryani

Smaller fish cuts can be used in curries, stews and fish biryani – now that was the ultimate when prepared by Zonjia. This incredible wife makes snoek biryani to die for. Served with a yoghurt mix over the top, it is fabulous. Add a simple salad of sliced onion, and tomato in vinegar on the side and, yessir, I salivate yet again.

Roe

Fish roe fried plain is always a bonus when found. It was not a favourite of mine, but many ooohed and aaahed their way through the treat. I preferred it split open on a sandwich which came into its own with Mrs Balls chutney. Now there’s another subject worthy of a blog on its own!

The heads

Snoek heads can be boiled with onion and black pepper. I have an image of our parents sucking and slurping away at the bones after eating the broth and, yes, the eyeballs. [It’s interesting how people always want to know about the eyeballs. “Do they really eat them?” So now you know!] None enjoyed it more than Cecil, my father-in-law. It could also be curried with a similar plate-licking end-result. No doubt Zonjia will be drooling too!

Braai


Marinading is also critical for the best results when braaing. Curried, masala-braaied snoek is something else. As it is with smoking, oak wood is the best for flavour enhancement with a braai. I eat it with the fingers when I steal pieces while the hot fish is still on the grill or the smoker. The two-piece, hinged griller is vital for easy turning.

A visit to Cape Town is never complete without a snoek braai at Michael or Pat’s house. These are the moments in which one cultivates enduring friendships. Roll on our next visit to the Mother City!

Smoked

I often used a small methylated spirit-fired smoker in the garage to round off a successful day of diving and bartering. A few fish fillets, a couple of split crayfish, some tenderised perlemoen slices, a rolled up boerewors sausage, and a few lamb chops were all done in one go. Talk about eating like royalty!

Commercial smoked snoek is a South African institution which is sold around the country. Best bought whole in a long box, one could also get smaller pieces at the supermarkets. When fresh, it’s tough to beat on a sandwich with lettuce and sliced tomato. When not so fresh, Mrs Balls would invigorate even a dead horse. The best smoked snoek? Done at home and eaten warm!

Dried/salted

During the “non-R” months, one could resort to eating one’s cured snoek. Wind and sun-dried snoek are hung outdoors. We hung ours on a wire hanger on the washline after a coarse salting. My mom kept hers moist by painting it with some cooking oil during the drying process. Some people regard this as fish Biltong, but it’s a lot softer than the meat jerky and is not tough at all. It’s all about timing. Cured for too long and it toughens up. Our favourite was to grill it with a bit of butter and then to have it on a sandwich. You

guessed it, with Mrs B on top!

Brined – “mot pikkelaar”

I mentioned in an earlier blog that my maternal great-grandfather Scott was a fish dealer. He brined fish fillets in a saltpetre mix. Add a bit of charcoal and sulphur, and there could be explosive results! The saltpetre [potassium nitrate] gave the fish fillet [the “mot”] a reddish colour and, in the pre-refrigeration days, it was another way to store the snoek and other fish fillets for months on end. One needed to desalt the fish in clean water. The fillets were made into a stew, smoorvis, with onion, cabbage and diced potatoes. The same dish is popular with salted snoek. If anyone has a recipe, could I have it, please!

Salted, canned

We were not fans of the more heavily salted fish which needed soaking in water before it was deboned by scraping with a knife before cooking – usually as a stew as noted earlier. Instead, my mother used canned snoek for her smoorvis – made with cabbage and potatoes. Served on rice, I added Mrs Balls to my helpings. With the potatoes, and compulsory garlic and chilli, seconds were never enough for me!

Etc….

No doubt there are other ways to prepare snoek. It can also be baked, wrapped in foil with thick slices of potato, tomato and onion. A fat, end-of-summer snoek will simmer in its own juices. I loved a big steenbras or Hottentot [endemic bream types; is there a more PC word for the “H” fish?] done in this style with added salt and coarse pepper. Try this served on rice, and there’s no need for Mrs Balls when those juices soak into the rice.

[Damn, I must stop tempting myself! After all, I’m supposed to be a vegan! Religious conversions like this are not easy and are easily overlooked when the seafood is fresh. My Facebook often captures these moments of dietary vagrancy! Ahhhh!]

Now it’s DecembeR – so snoek lovers can start eating again, though ApRil may be even better; more fat then! OK, more healthy Omega oils for the fastidious among you!

Finally, to really understand a Capetonian, you have to give snoek a go, especially those Kiwis out there. Mates, it’s definitely NOT cat food or fish bait. It’s a slice of Heaven!

PS 1. My book 1 is done! Fury and Rage in Cape Town is part one of the trilogy, In the Shadow of Table Mountain             Watch this space for details.  Early 1919??

Find out about Dr Stanley Gershon, his pal Jim Davids, Detective Adams, his activist daughter Lydiah, Stanley’s girl friend Fay and his mother Reena. All play a role in the unfolding political drama and township violence in the Cape Town of 1976.

2. Enjoy the festives. I will and I will take a break from blogging over the next few weeks. Stay well and safe till we  meet again on line in the new year! XX

17.9.2018

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