Kobus van der Merwe’s take on Leipoldt’s piekelvis (pickled fish)

Kobus van der Merwe’s take on Leipoldt’s piekelvis (pickled fish)
Chef Kobus van der Merwe’s piekelvis (pickled fish). (It is there, it’s his signature to ‘hide’ things.) The intriguing cutlery is by Arne Jacobsen, who designed the Copenhagen Royal Hotel in 1953, including all the furniture and finishes and even down to the cutlery. ‘I have a bit of a thing for cutlery and design classics,’ Chef Kobus says. (Photo: Kobus van der Merwe | collage Tony Jackman)

We asked Kobus van der Merwe, the revered chef-owner of Wolfgat restaurant in Paternoster on the Cape’s West Coast, to share a recipe with us. He chose his delectable way with pickled fish, a true classic of the old Cape kitchen.

What speaks of the salty waters of the oceans that lap our shores more than fish which has been pickled with the spices that explorers and traders of centuries past brought to our kitchens?

Pickled fish, or piekelvis, as Chef Kobus calls it, is more than mere food. It is a part of the soul of the Cape, with roots that weave all the way back to the days of the old colony. It is our honour to have it as part of our collective bequeathal. 

This dish also belongs to all of us, no matter our race or creed, just as anything from the sea and the spices of the trees belong to us all. 

It is a dish of unity and camaraderie; one of those things we all love, like braaied snoek, bokkoms and Klippies and Coke.

But there’s more honour in this story. 

Chef Kobus van der Merwe has become a hero among his peers nationwide thanks to his brave opinion piece about the flaws of our national restaurant awards, in which he gave voice to what many others in the industry were thinking.

We gave him a platform in Daily Maverick and he responded with aplomb in a piece written with great care and a strong desire for balance

We also published a reply from the organisers of the Eat Out Awards, and subsequent to “all that”, they have undertaken to make changes as a direct consequence of Van der Merwe’s courage in speaking out. 

We tip our hats to him as a man of integrity.

Kobus van der Merwe. (Photo: Jac de Villiers | collage Tony Jackman)

It is my personal honour, then, to invite Kobus to share a recipe with us, and I hope to see more contributions from him in these pages again.

“This is my interpretation of Leipoldt’s piekelvis with cabbage and apple sambal, tamarind chutney, pickled onion,” Kobus says, adding that it is “loosely” based on the C Louis Leipoldt original and that ​​an apple and cabbage combo “was very much a Leipoldt signature”.

You may be puzzled at some of the ingredients but they are not hard to find. 

Kiesieblaar, Kobus says, “is a common, global weed; most farmers will know it. It is quite invasive. Malva neglecta (and similar closely related species) are quite prolific throughout southern Africa. It’s originally from the Mediterranean regions.” 

So, chat with your farmer friends and see what you can find. Otherwise, the recipe will not be harmed by its omission.

Ingredients such as mango powder (also known as amchoor or amchur) and coconut blossom sugar are available from shops such as Atlas Trading in Bo-Kaap.

Any type of fish can be used for piekelvis, but fish with firmer flesh works best. Angelfish and yellowtail are favourites. Hake is also commonly used. 

Pickled fish is best served at room temperature.

Chef Kobus van der Merwe’s piekelvis (pickled fish)

(Serves 6)

For the masala:

15ml fennel seeds 

15ml cumin seeds 

15ml coriander seeds 

5ml fenugreek 

10ml ground ginger 

5ml mango powder 

5 cloves 

1 stick cassia

Temper the spices by heating in a dry pan over medium heat, until fragrant. Grind into a fine powder using a spice grinder or mortar and pestle.

For the fish:

800g fish, filleted and pin boned

1 large onion

The masala that you have already prepared

600ml white wine vinegar

250ml water 

30ml coconut blossom sugar, or soft brown sugar

3 fresh bay leaves, or lemon leaves

Flour for dusting 

Vegetable oil for frying

Sea salt and white pepper for seasoning

Season the fish fillets with sea salt and white pepper. Dust with flour, then shallow fry in vegetable oil until just cooked; resist the temptation to overcook the fish at this stage, it will become too dry. 

Carefully break the fish into 12 mootjies (medium-sized pieces). 

In a dry pan, gently heat the masala until fragrant. Add the vinegar, water, sugar and bay leaves. Add one onion, cut into handsome slices. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. It’s important that the onions retain a bit of crunch. 

Layer the cooked fish and warm pickle liquid in a ceramic or glass vessel. Leave to cool. Cover and refrigerate. 

Piekelvis should marinate for at least three days before it’s ready to be served. 

For the peach ‘mebos’:

6 dried peach halves

15ml sugar 

15ml salt

3 cardamom pods 

Place the peach halves, sugar, salt and cardamom in a medium saucepan. Cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook until the peaches are puffed up and completely soft. Cool to room temperature. 

For the sambal:

¼ each small red cabbage and small green cabbage, very finely shredded

1 Granny Smith apple, chopped into small, crunchy dice

Handful mint leaves, finely chopped 

Handful coriander leaves, finely chopped 

Lemon juice and salt to season

Toss the sliced cabbage and apple with the coriander and mint leaves. Season with a squeeze of lemon, and salt to taste. 

For the tamarind chutney:

500g mixture of fresh ripe peaches, apricots, Kei apples, Cape gooseberries, tomato etc, roughly chopped (​​you can add most kinds of fruit, especially ones with higher natural acidity)

1 onion, finely chopped 

100ml tamarind water

50ml sugar

5ml black peppercorns

5ml powdered fenugreek

Sea salt to season

In a large saucepan, fry the onion until soft. Add the rest of the ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the fruit is nicely softened, but not cooked to a pulp. Leave as is if you prefer a chunky chutney. Or gently pulse with a stick blender if you prefer a smoother chutney. 

For the garnish:

Squares of raw red and green cabbage

Crispy baked kiesieblaar (Malva neglecta or similar) leaves

To serve:

180ml full-fat plain yoghurt

Spoon some yoghurt onto the plate. Add a spoonful of each chutney and some cabbage sambal. Add two mootjies of piekelvis to each plate. Add a mebos peach half. Cover the fish with the squares of raw cabbage. Add the crispy kiesieblaar. Serve with a side of mosbolletjies or hot cross buns. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Bev G says:

    Thanks you. Each year I promise I am going to make pickled fish and each year, come Good Friday, I have not and have to go and buy some. This year… well lets see. This all looks do-able!

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options