In Christianity one abstains from rich foods from Ash Wednesday forward (Sundays excluded). This Lenten abstinence is only over on Easter Sunday. Forty days of denial in memory of the forty days of Christ’s desert fast. The only two days of absolute fast are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Good Friday’s fast is usually only until mid-afternoon, the time presumed to be the time of the death of Jesus on the cross.
In South Africa there is an interesting tradition. After the Good Friday services, when one goes home to break the fast, one should only eat pickled fish and salads.
I have no real knowledge about the origins of this peculiarly South African tradition but piecing together what I know about it, the practice seems to be prevalent in the so-called coloured community country wide, and to have spread in the Anglican community to all colour groups, and from there it has spread into the general Christian population. I presume at least some of the desire to eat fish on Good Friday is still a hangover of the old-fashioned Roman Catholic concept of fish on Fridays, a concept which still, more than fifty years after Vatican II, makes its way onto South African institutional menu planning.
Pickled fish (or “pickle fish” as it is known colloquially) is not unique to South Africa, but it is very typical of the Cape Malay cuisine with its slightly sweet curried onion sauce. It is a dish which is best prepared a few days in advance and requires no cooking on the day. It is also very suitable for the uncertain weather of South Africa’s autumnal Easter season.
I gather that many people eat their “pickle fish” with hot cross buns. This screams at me. Hot cross buns should not be eaten until Easter Sunday. They are “rich foods” and not suitable for Lent, never mind the official fast days of Lent. Rather one should eat pickled fish with an assortment of salads, including, if one likes it, potato salad. I dislike quantities of mayonnaise, so potato salad seldom makes it to my table. I grew up without a tradition of pickled fish on Good Friday, but as a child matzos was usually found in our house at Easter time. It was then, as now, strictly seasonal and if one liked it one got it in time for the unleavened bread season. (I find it on the sale tables after Easter and buy it then). Thus in adulthood, where I choose to eat pickled fish on Good Friday, I have no problem pairing it with matzos or brown bread toast and crisp summer salads.
Note: Yellowtail is the fish of choice for making pickled fish. According to the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (Sassi) at www.wwfsassi.co.za yellowtail is green listed, making it a sustainable food resource. One can eat it with an ecological clear conscience.
Most South African supermarkets now sell specially prepared pickled fish ahead of Good Friday and I got mine at Woolworths for R90 a kilogram (bear in mind that a lot of the weight is in the vinegary sauce), but sadly, it was hake, not yellowtail. Hake is also a sustainable food resource on the green list. Woolworths pickled fish is slightly sweeter than I would make if I were making it myself, but I am lazy and shall probably continue buying it from Woolworths then whining slightly that home made is better.