Summer is a fish braai

Summer is a fish braai
(Image by Tobias C. Wahl on Pixabay)

If we get lucky and escape a fourth wave, let’s ride a wave of a different kind and surf our way through Neptune’s larder.

Summer’s nearly here and time is right for dancing on the beach like they do on the West Coast. On the western shores of South Africa they eat their fish with apricot jam, bread and butter. It’s an eye-opener if you visit there for the first time and don’t know anything about the ways of these hardy people with the Atlantic breeze in their hair and sea salt on their lips.

This column accompanies this recipe.

I remember my first visit to the Muisbosskerm at Lamberts Bay, an open-air beach seafood restaurant. It was 1990 and a quick Google tells me it is still going. Potjies brimful of seafood; kreef braaing on a grid somewhere, whole fish on another, piles of pertly pink prawns. It was a group of journos on a bus tour and everyone was drunk because only the bus driver had to drive and the place is such a party jolplek that it’s almost impossible not to go overboard. Which isn’t a particularly good idea as the sea is Right There. You feel your hair letting itself down even as you walk in and someone hands you a drink. But you were what-the-hell young and foolhardy with it. The older me, now, would be way more circumspect. And most of us behave a lot better these days anyway. Mostly.

We piled plates high with prawns and mussels and kingklip and did what the locals do… buttered thick slices of crusty bread and slathered apricot jam on, right there on the plate with the seabed crawlies. 

You’d think, having watched true experts cook all of that, that I might have learnt something from it. Hey? Like how not to mess up a perfectly good whole fish on the braai.

The first time I did so was a disaster. It was a geelbek, or Cape salmon, somewhere in the early Nineties, and I thought I was being really clever by getting a fishmonger to butterfly it for me and making lemon-garlic butter all by myself. I wasn’t much of a cook yet, now that I look back, but I knew my way around a braai. Knew how to marinate chops and season steaks, didn’t always burn the meat like I used to when I was in my twenties and thought I knew it all. Charred drumsticks had been my forté back then. My friend Liesl used to ask, “Tones, is the meat burnt yet? Haha.” She was also the one who delivered my favourite braai-side retort. It was a bring-and-braai and some guy sidled up to me while I was cooking. “Are the chops ready yet?” he asked. Liesl turned to him. “Did you bring any chops?” “No.” “Then they’re not ready yet.”

One way to learn very quickly how not to do something is to do it without first consulting those who know. Like looking at a whole butterflied geelbek and thinking cockily, yeah, I know what to do with you, sucker. Bung it in the folding grid, braai it and there we go. While forgetting all about the seafood cooked at the Muisbosskerm that time.

Of course, when I opened the grid once the contents were cooked, the fish on the skin side stuck to the metal and couldn’t be wrenched off. Half of the fish ended up burning in the coals; the only way to get it off was to shove the grid right into the flames for the fire to do its work. The braai as Neptune’s crematorium. That’s a waste of the creature’s life and pretty stupid on the part of the cocky novice chef who should have known that with fish you have to oil the grid really well if you’re not to be donating most of the fish to the fire fairies.

It was an embarrassing lesson to learn, seeing how there was a crowd of my mates waiting to eat it and witnessing my shame, but the lesson was emphatically learnt. You don’t ever make that mistake again, which means that by the error of just one trial you have in fact triumphed because you now know something fundamental about the fish braai.

The other truth about braaing fish is more subtle. You have to be tactile about it, using your senses and common sense, to gauge when the flesh is just right, not overdone and dry, but also not underdone. You don’t want the skin to be burnt. So the coals must be moderately hot and the grid not too close to them. Be watchful. Learn to touch the flesh with a finger or thumb and be able to gauge how well done it is. Be sure to leave the very centre a tiny bit under, but not too much.

And you must use a baste. It doesn’t need marination, leave that for the steak and chops. The rest is chiefly about timing. I cook it with the (well oiled) skin side down for 10 minutes, then turn and cook the other for five to 10 more.

And you must, must, must use a hinged grid. An OILED one.

Strange to think about fish when you live in the Karoo, but you do. So, when in Qheberha/PE, I go to Fisherman Fresh deli in the docks and buy their fare, fresh from the sea. Bought a whole carpenter this week and they butterflied it for me and packed it in ice. Took it home, lit a fire and found a tin of apricot jam. DM/TGIFood

Tony Jackman is the Galliova Food Champion of the Year 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is now available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.

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