Pickled Fish with Allspice


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

salt, pepper

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.




42 Replies to “Pickled Fish with Allspice”

  1. The only pickled fish we had were pickled herring. We never pickled it ourselves, but I remember how I loved the acidy and only slightly sweet, ever so chewy herring meat. Mum would serve it with a small dollop of sour cream (my mouth is watering thinking of it). I recall she liked the Swedish or Finish brands, commenting that the Jewish brands were just too syrupy sweet. I haven’t had pickled herring in years, JT mentioned that he thought it gave me terrible breath when we were first dating. Sigh.

    1. Eva, this fish is quite different from pickled herring which is not fried before being marinated, but put into brine. I also love pickled herring a lot, but find many brands also too sweet and nauseous. I have tried all the IKEA vinegared herrings (it’s quite difficult to find good pickled herring here so I taste whatever I can) and they were all to sweet and too bland… Sometimes I’m thinking of making my own vinegared herring, but since I cannot find the salted one (after being soaked in a brine) it might be really difficult… Have you had the herring in oil or just vinegared? (I love both and I agree both have a very strong smell!).

        1. You know, I prefer to eat vinegared herring when it’s served on its own, but the one in oil is perfect in salads. I couldn’t replace it with the vinegared one. It tastes stronger, but is less acid and has something irresistible… (Of course even though there is some oil left,the fish doesn’t “swim” in oil when I prepare it, I always wipe the oil off with paper towels). It’s has a more unusual and complex taste.

  2. I’ve only had pickled Herring too. My uncle used to make it using an old family recipe from my family in Sweden. I do remember the big wooden barrel with a less than enticing smell, but the herrings were fabulous. I’ve always thought there might be a simpler way of doing this so I’m certainly going to try your recipe. GG

    1. This recipe is quite simple indeed. A simple fried fish and vinegar. Herrings are also salted in brine I think before being marinated or put into oil (or maybe there is another process involved too). I love pickled herring (both in oil and in vinegar).

  3. I don’t think I’ve ever had pickled fish before… what an interesting idea Sissi. You are so amazing with your preserving and pickling…the allspice is also intriguing – I tend to only use it with my Christmas cooking for some reason but I do like the taste and would be happy diversifying. This post is opening my eyes to so many other possibilities. Very inventive!

  4. Oh, for a moment there I’d thought you’d pickled the fish in their raw state. Then I continued reading and saw “fried”. Phew! I’m not a fan of those fermented shark stuff. You know, this is interesting because we also have our own nyonya version where the pickle solution is vinegar, ginger, chillies and turmeric. I will have to make that and post it one day. I love the sweet and sour flavors! I’ll definitely try this version with all the spices in it.

    1. Hi, Ping. I have never tasted fermented fish… It must be completely different from this innocent vinegared fried fish 🙂 I am impatient to see your nyonya pickled fish.

  5. Lovely photography! I’ve never pickled fish before… I will definitely try this. What size of fish do you suggest using?

  6. Oh Sissi, this is something I’ve NEVER tasted, I love picked vegetables, but fish in a jar does seem a bit out of my comfort zone because I didn’t grow up with that. Do you think I can use the same recipe to pickle other items?

    1. You should think about it as fried fish sprinkled with vinegar (that’s exactly what it is when served). Otherwise, my favourite pickled recipe is Pickled Sweet Pepper. I don’t know why but every single person among my friends and in my family loves it. (http://www.withaglass.com/?p=798) It’s very easy to prepare and you can treat it like a short-term pickle too (you just skip the processing stage; both methods are explained in my post).

  7. I haven’t has pickled fish in years. When growing up in Michigan we had a boat at a marina and would spend the summers there. My dad would have access to fresh caught fish and would pickle it. I never cared for fish as a child, but i would eat my father’s pickled fish. I will have to try this recipe, it sounds good with allspice.

    1. Thank you so much, Lyndsey. I also loved pickled fish as a child (I loved everything in vinegar actually!).

  8. I’ve never tried pickled fish too, I’m slightly disconcerted, though I would probably eat it if it was put in front of me. and probably liek it 😉

    1. Shu Han, I think my mum will be very surprised and proud when I tell her that it’s an exotic/unusual recipe for so many people! I’m sure you would like it (it’s not fermented fish, simply marinated a bit in vinegar). It’s very refreshing and frankly so similar to the Portuguese/Spanish escabeche…

  9. Pickled fish is something we just buy from the store and and my favorite was the spicy one pickled in olive oil. So, thank you for sharing the knowledge on making pickled fish. This is amazing, Sissi! 🙂

    1. Thank you, Ray. I think I have never tasted fish pickled in olive oil. Sounds delicious.

    1. Thank you, Barb. Of course! I loved vinegared food as a child, but then at least in my family, apart from things like coffee for example, no one hesitated to give the same food to children as to adults. Spicy, not spicy, sour, not sour… It was for me to see what I liked. And I loved hot food, sour food and vinegared food too.

  10. Geography plays such a big part in our food experiences, even in a relatively small area such as Europe [I’m Estonian-born (tiny!) and live in Australia (huge in comparison)!]. All of Northern Europe prepares fish fillets. fried, then pickled, in the way you have described. It is not only an absolute necessity on the smorgasbord table, but a very favourite dish in ‘ordinary’ life also. I think my mother made it at least once a fortnight and I have continued her recipes regularly. But then we lived coastal, didn’t we!! I find it very moreish 🙂 ! And pickled herring and smoked eel and smoked sprats: can’t imagine life without them, altho’ 80% of my cuisine is Asian these days 😀 !

    1. So now I know where my mum took this recipe from. She has never been to Estonia though, as far as I know, but maybe got it from someone, who got it from someone who was in one of the Northern European countries… I love pickled herring too (but then it’s more widespread to Central Europe too) and smoked eel is such a delicacy. I’m happy to see you know smoked eel! Most of my cuisine is Asian now, too! (I don’t know if it’s 80% but 70% at least).

    1. Hi, Sylvia. I’m always glad when my dishes are not boring (even if they might seem scary).

  11. Aah, another fan of “softened bones” – I love that about canned sardines. Maybe it sounds disgusting, but I love being able to “spread” everything, even the spine, over some toast… so delicious! 😀

    This is really a great idea Sissi – I’ve never heard of anyone pickling fish before (I mean, of course I know it is done often, but I never knew someone who tried it). Do you do it a lot?

    1. Thank you so much, Charles. I would compare it maybe to your pickled eggs. The process is similar I think… I make it several times a year, mainly in the summer. I’m the only one to eat it at home, so I don’t make it too often.

  12. Sissy, the only pickled fish I remember is the pickled herring, and that was store bought. I love everything pickled, and would love your pickled version of your creative fish! Love the pickled spices you used. This would be an amazing appetizer on rye party toasts…yumm!

    1. Thank you, Elisabeth. I’m so happy you are also a rye bread fan! There are days when I simply cannot look even at the best wheat French bread and crave rye seriously.

  13. Oh I know which Japanese fish pickled dish you are talking about….but what was the name…can’t remember! All the sudden I remember now thanks to your description. We do eat those in summer time and I didn’t know it was Mediterranean influence (well now that I’m outside of Japan, it makes sense). Your pickled fish looks appetizing, and vinegar flavor helps our appetite to be opened when it’s hot. Great recipe! Happy to see your mom’s seasonings combination. 🙂

    1. Thank you so much, Nami. You mean sakana no nanban zuke? Apparently it was inspired by the Portuguese version of escabeche (the “barbarian” word in this dish is supposed to mean “Portuguese” 😉 ). Nanban zuke marinade is much more subtle and delicate than this harsh European marinade, but they have the refreshing side in common.

  14. Dear Sissi,

    I have always been curious to try the pickled or raw herrings from Europe. Many people have told me they taste very strong and fishy but it’s something I have always wondered about.

    I would love to taste your fish since it’s deep fried and pickled with spice coz I also like the can sardines and my favourite bits are the soft spinal bones and I usually add fresh red chillies, onions and lemon juice and eat it with toast.

    1. Hi, Chopinand. European herrings are not raw. They are pickled in salted brine and then either put into oil (with spices or not) or into vinegar marinade (and then sold either in vinegar or in different sauces such as mustard, cream, dill etc.) or they are only slightly vinegared (after the salted brine of course) and put into oil. These are at least the only kinds I know. All are amazingly complex and I wouldn’t say they are fishy in the fish sauce sense. On the other hand they do have a strong herring smell of course.

        1. MR. Three-Cookies, I meant that Chopinand must have tasted in Australia only pickled/conserved in brine herring. People often call such herrings “raw” because they haven’t been cooked, but they have been treated in a way that they are no longer raw like sushi (and smell like herring). When you go to Netherlands of course you can taste raw (but I don’t even know in how many countries apart from Netherlands they have really raw herring, while the pickled one is popular in all the Eastern Europe, some Central European countries, Northern Europe etc., hence my answer).

  15. Awesome recipe, will make for sure. I am still in Sydney, I might even try with some of the locally available fish. They have sardines etc here, that would be excellent.

    1. Thank you so much, Mr. Three-Cookies. I am sure you have a huge choice of super fresh fish… I went to my shop yesterday and didn’t buy mackerels because they didn’t look fresh 🙁 It happens often with mackerels (not the horse mackerels but the striped ones, which are often smoked in Europe), they are a bit like sardines: very delicate.

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