What do eggs have to do with Easter? And why do we eat lamb, hot cross buns and pickled fish?
Over the centuries, Easter Sunday has been supplemented by a host of culinary customs, many of which were incorporated from springtime fertility celebrations of European and Middle Eastern pagan religion. Rabbits and eggs, for example, are widely-used pagan symbols for fertility.
And while some Christians disassociate themselves from Easter eggs because of the pagan connotations, other Christians regard Easter eggs as symbols of joy and celebration (as they were forbidden during the fast of Lent) and as a “taste” of new life and resurrection that they have in Jesus Christ.
As a Christian symbol, eggs are said to represent the empty tomb. The outside of the egg looks dead but inside there is new life, which is going to break out. The Easter egg is a reminder that Jesus will rise from His tomb and bring new life.
Easter is also the time to start eating the season’s new lamb, which is just coming onto the market then and also symbolises the sacrificial lamb. Easter breads, cakes, and biscuits are a major category of Easter foods, in the predominantly Roman Catholic countries; traditional breads are laden with symbolism in their shapes, which may make reference to the Christian faith.
The most popular English Easter bread is the hot cross bun, and in supermarkets all over the Cape you’ll find thousands of versions of this quintessential Easter treat. Many stores are now even offering the traditional spicy buns with the addition of chocolate, cranberries or just plain, without even the traditional inclusion of raisins.
And then there’s pickled fish, which is a well-loved South African tradition. Many argue how best to make this centuries-old dish and there is even mention of “…. fish, pickled with turmeric” by Lady Anne Barnard when she visited the Boland farm Meerlust in 1798.
Many “Kaapies” swear by the fact that eating “ïngelegde vis” is of vital importance over Easter and it is teamed with hot cross buns. Some say that traditionally pickled fish was eaten because during the long days of worship over Easter there was no time to go out and catch fresh fish, hence the idea of preparing it in advance and pickling fish. Others maintain that it all goes back to the ritual of eating fish on Fridays.
Another version of the pickled fish story is that fish, which was much cheaper many decades ago, was a staple in th Cape and due to lack of refrigeration, it was thus pickled so that it could last a little longer.
In Luke 24, Jesus used fish to prove his resurrection. He appeared to his disciples “and while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them ‘do you have anything to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish and he took it and ate it in their presence.” As to why there is vinegar in the recipe, in John 19, describing Roman soldiers offering a vinegar-soaked sponge to Jesus on the cross, is cited.
There are as many variants on pickled fish as there are cultures in the country. Some people fry the onions to go with the fish; some do not; some batter the fish before cooking it while purists deem this an aberration.
But the main thing in making this once humble, today more expensive dish, is to achieve an ever-so slightly sweet; never acidic, succulent dish that offers layers of taste and can be consumed with hot cross buns, simply buttered and topped with apricot jam.
The main ingedients are onions and of course fish. The rest is your choice on how you wish the end result to be.
For four people you need:
500g yellow tail or hake or any firm fish
Flour seasoned with salt and pepper
3 large onions sliced into rings
150ml white grape vinegar
100g brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup sultanas
2 tsp turmeric
2 tsp curry powder
2 tsp garam masala
1 tsp ground ginger
6 black pepper corns
4 dried bay leaves
Coat the fish in the flour and pan fry in oil until browned.
Drain on paper towels and reserve.
Sauté the onions in a medium pot until translucent. Add the other ingredients and boil on medium heat, uncovered, for five minutes.
Remove the pot from the heat and gently, without breaking it, add the fish.
Allow the mixture to cool and then put it in a ceramic dish with a lid and refrigerate.
Ensure the fish is completely covered with the sauce – it will keep in the fridge for at least four days.
Eat with hot cross buns and mop up the sauce with the buns. They are delicious sliced in half and toasted.
And here’s a decadent dessert:
Luxury hot cross bun pudding
1 pack of hot cross buns
1/2 cup sugar
1 100g bar of dark chocolate, broken into pieces
1 mandarin, peeled with a knife to remove pith and cut into small pieces
Cut each hot cross bun and butter each half and then spread with a medium layer of marmalade jam.
Sandwich the halves together and then cut each sandwiched bun into four or five pieces.
Grease a medium oven-proof dish and scatter the bun pieces in the dish.
Beat up the eggs with the sugar and the cream.
Scatter the mandarin and chocolate pieces on top of the buns and dot with some small knobs of butter.
Pour over the egg mixture and bake in a 160degC oven for about 30 minutes until the egg mixture is firm and the chocolate has melted.
Serve hot, either spooning portions into dessert dishes or cutting with a spatula.