I used to think for long years that my mum was the only person in the world who pickled fish and I still haven’t met anyone who does it this way. Pickling was a way to preserve small, recently caught freshwater fish we weren’t able to eat quickly enough. She always pickled whole fish, with bones, and removed only the head. Then, after a couple of weeks, the bones softened and often even the spinal bones were edible, just like in canned sardines. I have always considered this process somehow magical and loved the crunchy, transformed bones, not to mention the marinated, sour flesh. My mum prepared these pickles usually in the summer and hot, sunny days still seem the best moments to enjoy this refreshing snack or starter.
I don’t have access to freshly caught fish, so for long years I haven’t even tried to make this pickle on my own. To be frank I didn’t eat much fish and usually bought the easy to prepare big fish fillets. Then I found an excellent source of many relatively fresh fish varieties (which for a city far from the ocean and sea means very fresh) and began to buy them regularly. When I started to explore the Japanese cuisine, such delightful dishes as fish in tempura, salted dried fish or fish in nanban zuke marinade made me rediscover the joys of eating small fish. Incidentally it’s the Japanese hot nanban zuke marinade (inspired by the famous Mediterranean escabeche) that reminded me of my mum’s pickled fish and made me prepare it about a year ago for the first time in my life. It was an indescribable pleasure, a couple of weeks afterwards, to open a jar of my own home pickled sardines.
After this first test, I have slightly modified my mum’s recipe, adding more vinegar (I prefer my pickles very strong) and deep-frying fish instead of shallow-frying. Since I am usually impatient to taste the food I prepare, I started to preserve fillets which are ready to be eaten in a couple of days. The only thing I have never modified are the spices. The mixture of bay leaves, mustard grains, peppercorns and allspice is simply perfect, the latter being particularly important here (hence its mention in the title). Garlic is not necessary, but advised especially for garlic fans. I think allspice is available in most parts of the world, but for those who have never used it, here is an old photo of allspice grains:
TIPS: This is a short-term pickle recipe and the jars should be kept in the fridge (they will keep for at least a month). I sometimes process jars in hot water and keep them afterwards in my pantry for a couple of months, but I have no idea for how long it’s safe, so I don’t recommend it.
The fillets can be pickled without skin, but they taste much better with skin on.
If you use whole fish (without heads), you should wait a couple of weeks before tasting it.
Preparation: 30 – 40 minutes + a couple of days
Ingredients (fills one 1/2 litre jar):
8 small fish fillets (skin on) or six very small fishes, gutted and without heads
1 heaped tablespoon flour
oil for deep-frying
375 ml (1 1/2 cup) vinegar (I used 4,5% cider vinegar)
125 ml (1/2 cup) water
1 heaped tablespoon sugar
1 flat teaspoon salt
6 pepper corns
4 grains allspice
1/2 teaspoon mustard grains
1 big bay leaf (or 2 – 3 small)
(2 cloves garlic)
Heat some deep-frying oil in a pan.
Wash the fish fillets (or the whole fish).
Pat them dry.
When the oil is hot enough, quickly season the fillets with salt and pepper.
Dust them lightly with flour and deep fry until slightly golden.
Remove excess oil by placing the fillets on paper towels.
Place the fish in a jar.
Bring all the marinade ingredients to boil.
Let it cool down and when the marinade is still hot (but not boiling) pour it over the fish.
Close the jar. Let it cool down and put into the fridge for a couple of days or weeks, if you prepare whole fish.