How to Fry a Fish – Cape Town Style, Part I

Jonathan throws a handstand by the beach huts at the base of Silvermine Peak.

I learned to surf in Cape Town. Accompanied by Jonathan, an Israeli backpacker also staying at the Zebra Crossing Hostel, I took the train to Muizenberg, a little surf town on the southern coastal outskirts of Cape Town. I rented a board, wetsuit and surf coach at Gary’s Surf Shop. Fifteen minutes later, the guy had me catching Muizenberg’s gentle little curls.

After a couple of hours in the waves, Jonathan and I walked along the coastal catwalk to neighboring Kalk Bay. I felt a background sense of alarm, already well-ingrained after two weeks in Cape Town. Hemmed in by waves on our left, we were walking alone with nowhere to run should we be followed. But the only people present were little naked colored boys running to the tide pools and lovers necking on a bench. At one point I sensed someone behind us. It stopped my breath when I realized she presented not a threat but uncommon beauty.

Arriving at the small harbor town, I felt immediately at home in the fishmarket. Stout, muscular men and women peddled strings of fish laid out on plastic tarps — tuna, stumpy, hake, and others I could not name. The women wore long faded skirts and apron. Their ample chests strained against their blouses and their heads were bound up tightly in plain, dark scarves. I surveyed the goods — it was the end of the day and the vendors were packing up. I settled on one stall that seemed to still be conducting business and lifted the gill on a fish to check its freshness. Immediately, I felt the fishwife’s reprobation. “Look, don’t touch,” said her look.

I waited until another customer, a nervous looking white man in a plaid shirt, finished his transaction. Then I  pointed myself to a string of silvery, sub-pound fish. “One of these please,” I said.

The fishwife pursed her lips and I realized I should be buying a string. But she obliged me anyway and cut a single fish off the string. Wrapping it in newspaper, she quoted, “190 rand.” I hesitated, thinking, “What an outrageous price! Is this what fish costs here?”

Fishwife at Kalk Bay

The fishwife mistook my consternation for savviness and clicked approvingly (in !Xhosa I think) to her helper, who was stuffing fish back into a cooler. She said to me next, “Twenty rand for the fish and 10 to buy me a beer.”

I grinned. Now we’re doing business! Amused that the price had suddenly become reasonable, I pulled a twenty rand note from my wallet. “Ok, here’s twenty rand for the fish,” I said, and then pulling out another note, “and 10 rand for the the beer.” She grinned back, patted me on the back and we started chatting. I learned that her helper was not her husband, but her garden boy, whom she had known since he was knee-high.

I also asked her how I should cook the fish.

She beamed,”You put the ginger and garlic on the fish, both sides and fry it.” She demonstrated by flipping over her broad meaty palm. “Then it will taste very good!”  She then asked me, “What is your name?”

I replied, “Ginger.”

“Ginger like gingerbread cookie!” She beamed again and gestured to my Israeli friend, who was watching the seals in the harbor. “And he is Garlic!”

I grinned back. Having grown up eating and cooking Cantonese, it’s incredible to fly across the world to find that the Cape coloured as well, nothing goes together better than ginger and garlic. I must tell my grandmothers.

The fishwife heartily bid us farewell, commending us to her beautiful city that we had come such a long way to visit. I felt my heart grow bigger with her hospitality, in this town with a harbour of weatherbeaten fishing  boats, tiny lighthouse at the end of the pier and Silvermine Peak illuminated in the mellow pinks and oranges of the setting sun.

Continue reading to Part II.

5 thoughts on “How to Fry a Fish – Cape Town Style, Part I

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