Growing up in the Free State and visiting our Cape relatives during school holidays, I was always struck by the sheer exoticism of the people down south. The Cape air smelled damp and salty. There was sand instead of ‘grond’, meaning earth. People spoke in a peculiar vernacular, mixing up languages in a way that my 10-year old puritan self thoroughly disapproved of. ‘Dis òf een òf die ander, maar nie beide tegelyk en tesame nie’ I’d crossly tell my mom on the plane home, bitterly disgruntled by my cousins’ linguistic masala.
Cape people seemed softer than the rest of us, looser and just a little bit odd. Most folks appeared to be marginally criminal and shifty – including my family – so you could never really rely on a Capetonian, one felt. And they ate a lot of snoek. Snoek was big in the Cape. Still is, really.
If you come from a culture such as I did, where red meat was a staple and often on the table three times a day, then eating slithery, slimy and scaly things caught from the sea just seemed barbaric. There’s always been this inherent disdain towards people who relied on the ocean’s bounty for food, as if to say ‘they’re so lazy, they can’t even grow their own food’. Yes. That was the implicit judgement.
I carried this half-formed obnoxious prejudice towards all things Cape inside of me pretty much all of my life, until I came to settle in Cape Town 20 years ago through a quirk of fate.
It’s been a long and very interesting journey, made that much more rewarding by the discovery of Cape traditional cooking. Cape cooks love spices, and certainly know how to make the most of meagre ingredients. This recipe for smoorsnoek just about sums up everything I have ever loved about living in Cape Town. It’s unique to this region – ware kontreikos – it’s a humble and down-to-earth thing, and whilst not being the most attractive looking dish on earth, it certainly makes you feel lovely inside when you eat it.
If I ever became mayor of the mother city, I’d demand that smoorsnoek not only has its own national holiday, but that the snoek is somehow worked into the official logo of the city.
This recipe makes enough for 6 normal people or for 1 teenage boy and his father. It keeps well in the fridge for 2 days. I like it best with a mug of strong black coffee.
More or less 250 g smoked snoek, flaked and carefully deboned
2 medium-sized onions, sliced thinly
2 T (30 ml) sunflower oil
3 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped
4-5 medium-sized potatoes, peeled, cooked till tender but firm and cut into chunks
1 heaped cup cooked rice
Parsley, coriander, salt and pepper to taste
This is a very simple recipe. Have your cooked, chopped potatoes, your peeled chopped tomatoes and cooked rice ready. Make sure you have removed all the bones from the snoek.
Fry the onions until translucent and just beginning to brown. Add the tomatoes and ‘smoor’ – braise – together for 10 minutes. Add some hot water if it looks like burning.
Add the potato and flaked snoek, stir through thoroughly and cook for 10 minutes. Stir in the cooked rice. Taste for seasoning, add as much chopped fresh parsley and coriander as you like even though it’s not traditional, and serve piping hot with some Mrs Balls’ chutney on the side.
Cook’s Tip: I like to stir in a big spoonful of home-made chilli tomato sauce. Many smoorsnoek recipes add chopped chilli but I prefer mine without. And if you want to take your smoorsnoek to a completely new level, season it with a dash of Thai fish sauce.
Typically of all regional dishes, the way you prefer your smoorsnoek is a profoundly personal thing. I like to think that my addition of a healthy dollop of home-made chilli tomato sauce and judicious amounts of hot water is what makes my smoorsnoek die beste.