It’s a fishy West Coast thing

It’s a fishy West Coast thing
(Photo: Phillip Wentworth on Unsplash)

The Weskus has character and characters, fish and interesting ways to serve it.

Harders, the diminutive mullet that is salted and sun-dried in the coastal breeze, are not necessarily the definitive fish morsel of the region. Vying for supremacy is the local tradition of serving braaied fish with apricot jam and other sweetly savoury relishes. That’s right: fish and jam. It’s a West Coast thing. And it’s wonderful.

A West Coast braai is redolent of the salty sea in your nostrils and the breeze ruffling your hair, sand between your toes and a touch of tan that defied the sunblock. You take the fish you bought at the harbour back to the rented cottage, light a fire and you plan to braai it the West Coast way, quickly over hot coals and then eat with chunky bread, real butter and lashings of apricot jam.

The first time you encounter what to many in the world must seem as an odd way to eat fish takes you unawares. It doesn’t seem to add up, if you weren’t brought up in the villages of the lower reaches of the Cape’s western coastline or further inland in places like Porterville or Moorreesburg where, as in Malmesbury, the people talk with a brei, a guttural rolling of the rrr thought to be a linguistic memory inherited from the Huguenots. Odd that there’s no brei in Franschhoek to speak of, but life and history work in strange ways.

West Coast people tell remarkable stories, in marvellous ways. No one can spin a yarn in Afrikaans like a Weskus character born and bred. There’s something about this region that creates larger-than-life personalities with wild and very funny stories to tell.

Much of the region is outside of the Karoo (though the old Garob then and now has never been strictly defined geographically, and there is spillover further north where we find ourselves in the Succulent Karoo). But the West Coast ways travel too, and far away in the Karoo of the Eastern Cape Midlands we organised a Weskus-style fish braai last Friday evening.

I’d bought a whole yellowtail from the fish counter at the new Checkers FX in Gqeberha and asked them to fillet and butterfly it for me. This requires removal of the head and spine and splaying the fish so that it is “hinged” at the centre and in one piece. Then you need to use tweezers to pick out any pin bones.

To go with it, I made a baste whose chief ingredient was apricot jam, and a fairly similar sauce to moisten it when serving. There was spiced rice too, and I made a sage-infused potbrood (braai bread) to go with it.

Then the crowd pulled in. Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit of Karoo Space fame, and Melina Smit, who has a singing voice as pure and deep as an Amanda Strydom or a Laurika Rauch. She ought to be famous nationwide; has a clutch of her own songs too. The Karoospace duo, if you don’t know it, sing too (Chris and his golden voice have formerly been in the lineup of the Silver Creek Mountain Band), I love to sing too, and when I reveal the other key theme of the evening it will become clear why it soon turned into a rousing songfest.

Chris had put his hand up to play DJ, but they had also offered to bring the makings of Margaritas. Right at the start of the evening. Luckily it was a Friday. And Saturdays are meant to be slow days.

It’s wise to have everything ready in advance of people arriving for a fish braai, and to make plenty of hot coals, as once the time comes to cook the fish you have to work quickly and not allow yourself to be distracted by Margaritas and singing.

The fish had of necessity been frozen, having bought it the weekend before, so it came out of the freezer on Friday morning to defrost slowly all day. In the afternoon I mixed the baste (no cooking required) and cooked the sauce, to be reheated just before serving.

Later I made a chopped salad of tomato, cucumber and carrot, dressed with Japanese wine vinegar, for some crunch and colour. I cooked the rice (flavoured with turmeric and cumin) late afternoon, and transferred it to a steamer for reheating in the final 20 minutes before serving the fish. Ducks, in a tidy row.

Leaving time for those Margaritas. Not the traditional ones with tequila, Triple Sec and lime juice. These were the ones from Pulp Fiction. Margarita Royale, with Grand Marnier and tequila and a cocktail base “made with real fruit”. They were so good that we have since appointed Chris and Julie as the cocktail gurus for future gatherings, along with an injunction that Chris be confirmed as DJ-in-chief in perpetuity. (This is quite useful for the braaier-in-chief, but don’t mention that).

It’s the sort of thing that happens when you take the West Coast inland, get your mates around, and let your hair down. It’s called Karoo living. (Find the yellowtail recipe here.) DM/TGIFood


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