Isn’t it funny what you miss from home? When the first wave of South Africans came over to London after we were welcomed back into the Commonwealth, suitcases were stuffed full of Mrs Ball’s chutney, rooibos tea and illicit biltong. Now all of these things are available at many mainstream supermarkets (which is either a sign of just how popular our cuisine is – or a sign of just how many of us there are over here!!). So then I started carrying over Ina Paarman’s seasonings and Nando’s pepper sauce – which are now both available (albeit the former only in South African shops). These days, I carry a somewhat more eclectic mix back with me – Nice ‘n Spicy spice packs, Peck’s Anchovette and Melrose biltong cheese spread – but the fact is that increasingly, I can get the foods I miss over here.
However, there have always been some things that are harder to find than others. Boerewors was a problem until I discovered the outstanding example made by Web Butchers in Southfields. Ostrich was a distant memory until I found the Gamston Wood ostrich stand at Borough Market. Fresh game (kudu, springbok etc) is still something I haven’t seen. And I do miss my snoek (rhymes with book, not fluke). Snoek (or, more correctly, Thyrsites atun) is a big scary game fish in the perch family which frequents the temperate waters around South Africa. It is also found in Australia and New Zealand where it is known as barracouta (no relation to barracuda). It can grow up to 2m in length and weigh 6kg – which is rather a lot for a fish, as far as I’m concerned! I have seen them in the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town and believe me, I’m not doing synchronised swimming with a school of these babies. But I’d be more than happy to arrange a meeting once they’ve been scaled, gutted and cleaned 😉
One of the reasons why you never see fresh snoek in England probably has to do with its little PR problem amongst the British public. Allow me to elaborate. During World War II when everything was scarce, food rationing was rife and cheap sources of protein were few and far between, somebody had the bright idea to catch cheap fish in South Africa, can it and ship it to England. Suffice to say it did not go down too well over here. The Web is full of war years recollections penned by people who remember this weird fish with the hugely amusing name arriving and being inedibly bad. A large proportion of the tins that were imported remained firmly on shop shelves (despite optimistic suggestions from the Ministry of Defence – like Snoek Piquante which seems to have become a kind of shorthand for everything unpalatable about food rationing!). I must say, I’m pretty sure nobody I know in South Africa eats the stuff tinned (shudder) and general consensus is now that bad canning methods was to blame for much of the snoek’s unintended piquancy…
But for those of us who grew up in South Africa, it’s a very different story. Snoek is one of the great culinary pleasures of the Western Cape (the province surrounding Cape Town). The flesh is oily and presumably packed with all the health benefits that oily fish brings; the meat is firm and strongly flavoured, rather like mackerel on steroids. And although there are lots of bones, they are truly gargatuan (2 inches long!) and can easily be seen and picked out. It can be sold fresh, smoked or salted; the fresh version is grilled, baked, fried, stewed or (my favourite) done on the braai; and the ready-to-eat smoked version can be served cold with a sweet relish, mashed into a pate, or flaked and heated up with tomatoes, onions and peppers in smoorsnoek, or (literally “smothered snoek” – Nick’s favourite). A favourite gift to bring back form Cape Town is a side of smoked snoek, and you can even buy them packaged in nice sturdy cardboard boxes at Cape Town airport.
So how did snoek come to grace the table at our annual Big South African Braai in the dying days of summer this year? Well, on a visit to friends in Milton Keynes, we dropped by the headquarters of Cruga. The shop is unprepossessing, occupying a unit on an industrial estate, but once inside it’s like coming home. Not only can you buy a full range of Cruga biltong there (both sliced and packaged or, as Nick prefers it, in whole slabs, to be sliced at home), but you can also stock up on all manner of South African goodies like ProNutro, peppermint crisps, NikNaks (no, the ones sold over here are NOT the same), Savannah cider and Choc-Kits. And in a freezer we also spotted… frozen snoek!! I could not believe my eyes. And obviously there was no way I was not buying it! We didn’t have a cooler box, but it was frozen solid and we wrapped it in copious amounts of damp newspaper, then even more dry newspaper and it got back to London as solid as a rock. As you see from the first picture, it filled the entire Weber – it was at least 40cm long, and that was without head or tail! Nick made his super secret apricot jam basting sauce (just kidding – recipes to follow below) and cooked the fish in a closed Weber. As it turns out, our snoek was smoked but undyed, which you really could not tell until you tasted it. But this is a good thing as the saltiness works beautifully with the apricot jam and I suspect we inducted at least one Aussie and one German into the Cult of Snoekology that day. I’m not brave enough to try and convert a Brit yet!
What made me think of this snoek braai was a post that appeared on Beyond the Pass last week talking about a Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) study of the levels of fish stocks around the South African coast. It makes for sobering reading. The mainstays of most South African fish menus (kingklip, Cape sole, kabeljou, Cape salmon) are all overfished and declining – which should give everyone pause for thought in the same way as recent revelations in the UK that cod is being overfished and in decline. But the good news, according to this handy Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) booklet explaining which fish are ethically OK to eat and which are not when dining in South Africa, is that snoek is still plentiful and OK to eat! Hurray! Ditto my beloved mussels, oysters, calamari, butterfish and good ol’ hake. Snoek has always been an integral part of the diet and culture of the so-called “Cape coloureds”, referring to the predominantly Afrikaans-speaking community that has its roots in the indigenous Khoisan people; slaves brought from the Dutch East Indies by the Dutch colonists in the 17th century; or a combination of these and other local ethnic groups. In fact, they have a saying equivalent to the English “well, knock me over with a feather!”, which goes along the lines of “slaat my dood met ‘n pap snoek!” (literally “strike me dead with a limp snoek”). But although most South Africans are happy to eat snoek at home on the braai, many restaurants still do not serve it, except as smoked snoek pate. The reason is probably twofold. Firstly, the bones are easiest to remove by hand, which is no problem at home but makes for an unedifying spectacle in a restaurant dressed in your best frock. Also, snoek has never quite shaken off its image as a food of deprivation – people who can’t afford sole eat snoek, so there is some resistance to ordering it in a restaurant. But if the FAO are correct, it’s time we all learned to give snoek a more prominent place on restaurant menus and gave the overfished species a break. I, for one, would be thrilled to see more snoek on menus.
UPDATE 2019: I have not been to the Cruga shop in years and I am not sure if they still stock snoek, but you can sometimes also get it from Best Biltong South African shop in Kingston-Upon-Thames and Mauritian Foods Online.
As promised, here are a couple of recipes for South Africans who have access to snoek, or Brits who are looking to revise their opinion of it 😉
WHOLE SNOEK ON THE BRAAI
Dead easy, this. The hardest part is to find a cleaned and butterflied snoek! All you need it Bovril and smooth apricot jam. Seriously. Dissolved a tablespoon of Bovril with hot water in a Pyrex jug. Add about 2 tablespoons of smooth apricot jam and microwave it on medium heat for 2 minute bursts, stirring in-between, until the jam has dissolved and a smooth sauce had formed. And that’s it! You can add some fresh black pepper if you feel you haven’t done enough 😉 Place the snoek skin side down on a lightly oiled braai grid over an indirect fire in your Weber kettle braai (or, indeed, over any braai fire. Let’s not be prescriptive here!). Baste liberally with the sauce and… leave it alone. Have a drink. Then check back and baste some more. It should cook in about 15 – 20 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish. Do make sure it’s cooked through.
SMOORSNOEK / GESMOORDE SNOEK (which is what became of our leftovers!)
Ingredients (the amounts can be scaled up or down depending on how much snoek you have)
1kg cooked (or smoked) snoek, skinned, boned and flaked (or substitute smoked mackerel or cooked smoked haddock)
2 large potatoes, cubed
1 large onion, chopped
2 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped into eighths
1 small green pepper, seeded and chopped
1 green chilli, finely chopped (optional)
2 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp sunflower oil
salt and pepper to taste
Boil or steam the potato cubes until just soft. Drain and keep warm. Heat the oil and butter in a heavy bottomed saucepan, fry the onions and green chilli until the onions start to brown. Add the green pepper and the potato and continue to fry until the potatoe cubes start to brown slightly. Keep stirring to make sure the mixture does not burn. Add the tomato and allow to combine with the other ingredients into a soupy stew. Add the flaked fish and allow to simmer gently until the flavours start to blend. Add a little boiling water if the saucepan is too dry. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot over rice.
SMOKED SNOEK PATE
250g smoked snoek, boned & flaked (you can substitute smoked angelfish)
250g cream cheese (I would use Philadelphia or similar)
1Tbs lemon juice
pinch of ground ginger
5 spring onions, finely chopped
125ml whipping cream
Optional – you can also add a splash of tabasco or a teaspoon of horseradish paste
Combine all ingredients except cream in a food processor. Whip cream separately and fold into the mixture. Scoop into a mould or individual ramekins and refrigerate. Serve with wholewheat toast.
And see this great idea for snoek with bacon, cilantro/coriander leaves and orange.