Why do some Cape locals eat hot cross buns with pickled fish?

The combination of hot cross buns and pickled fish is a tradition observed by many South Africans, particularly those of Cape Malay descent, during Easter time.

There are a few theories on the history behind this interfaith tradition.

It is said to have originated in Cape Town, where spiced, vinegar-laced pickled fish is eaten at Easter to symbolise the vinegar given to Jesus at the crucifixion.

Many Christian followers are encouraged to abstain from eating meat over Easter in respect of the anniversary of Jesus’ death.

Another theory as to its origins is because fishing boats didn’t go out over the Easter weekend. This made the pickling of fish a necessity in order to preserve it.

The latter was born of a strong Cape heritage, with the pickled dish having roots in Cape Malay and Cape Muslim cuisine. That explains the spicy, curry-like sauce.

The dish is often prepared with fish that is a staple in the Western Cape – snoek and yellowtail.

What about hot cross buns?

The origins of hot cross buns are believed to be rooted in ancient pagan traditions, and later adapted by Christian culture.

The cross on top of the buns was thought to symbolise the four quarters of the moon. This represents the change of seasons.

However the idea of the cross on the buns is also seen as a way of honouring the memory of Jesus on the cross.

The bun also marks the end of the Christian season of Lent. The spices inside the bun are also said to signify the spices used to embalm Jesus at his burial.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in England, the sale of hot cross buns was restricted to certain occasions. This included Good Friday, Christmas, and burials.

Eating the two together

The pairing of hot cross buns and pickled fish might seem unusual to some, but it reflects the crossover and blending of culinary traditions in South Africa.

The sweet and spiced flavor of hot cross buns is meant to complement the tangy and savoury taste of pickled fish. It creates a unique and culturally significant meal for many South Africans over Easter.

Don’t forget the lamb

There is also a tradition of eating lamb at Easter, that has its origins in the Jewish holiday of Passover.

During the original Passover story, the Israelites were instructed to sacrifice a lamb and mark their doorposts with its blood to protect them from the Angel of Death.

The Passover lamb sacrifice was therefore a central ritual of the Passover observance.

Familiar with the tradition of eating roast lamb on this Jewish holiday, those of Jewish heritage who converted to Christianity continued the tradition at Easter – which often coincides with Passover.


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