Pickled and salted herring has been a well known staple in the Northern European diet since medieval times. It is a lesser known fact, however, that herring has also been a common staple in the Caribbean diet since the late 18th century. During the height of the sugar trade, salted or brined herrings, packed in barrels for easy storage and transportation, were regularly sent across the sea from the north to our warmer island climes as a supplement to the local diet.
In Jamaica, we typically consume herring one of three ways: as “pick-up” herring, aptly named because the herring is roughly shredded or “picked” with the fingers and then cooked with Scotch bonnet pepper, vinegar, onion, and vegetables; as a spread called Solomon Gundy that’s akin to taramasalata; or as a pickled fish snack made with similar vegetables to pick-up herring, but not cooked, which is what this recipe is.
Our paternal grandmother Enid always had this delicious pickled herring sitting in her fridge as a handy snack for drop-in visitors, a tradition that started during my father’s childhood in 1940s Jamaica, when our country was ripe for change and bursting with ideas of nationhood and independence. Every weekend, my grandfather, Hopi, would host Sunday sessions on his home verandah, inviting the intellectuals, writers, artists, and politicians of the day for an afternoon of rowdy debate on the future of the nation. As the rum flowed and conversations heated up, Enid, our grandmother, always tempered the intellectual fire with a snack tray of her famous pickled herring and water crackers.
The young boys, like my father and his brothers, were allowed to sit on the verandah steps to listen and learn, but, as our father recently shared, while they relished these days for the exposure it afforded them to some of Jamaica’s greatest minds, they equally anticipated the fact that they were allowed to freely indulge in Enid’s coveted pickled herring and crackers. Even in our own childhood some 40 years later, every visit to “Manga’s” house (as we called her) always began with the greatly anticipated treat of cold, salty, perfectly spicy herring paired with water crackers, avocado when in season, and a glass of brown-sugar lemonade.
Herring is a dark fish which naturally has an intense, almost smoky flavor. When combined with the aromatic heat of Scotch bonnet pepper and the bright brine of cane vinegar, it awakens the palate and invites the taste buds out to play. If available, the addition of creamy, slightly sweet, sliced avocado makes for an unforgettable pairing. It also goes incredibly well with any kind of an aged, oaked Caribbean rum or rum cocktail, as the intense salt and spice of the herring is tempered and balanced by the subtle sweetness of aged West Indian rum, making it the perfect snack for drinking with friends.
Our updated version includes the unconventional addition of cilantro, olive oil, and a little red rum; it is equally delicious, however, without these modern twists, so feel free to leave them out. Similarly, you can adapt the recipe to what you have. No chayote? Just leave it out and use a bit more onion and carrot instead.
In a large pot or heatproof bowl, cover herring fillets with boiling water and let stand 15 minutes. (This process helps remove some salt and makes fish tender enough to shred.) Taste a piece of herring to gauge saltiness; if fish is still too salty for your taste, drain water and replace with fresh cold water; then allow to soak for 15 to 30 minutes longer. Repeat with additional changes of cold water, if necessary, but bear in mind that some level of saltiness is required for the dish to have the proper flavor. (The finished dish should be on the salty side, meant to be eaten in small bites with a drink and crackers.) Drain fillets and rinse under cool running water.
Pat fillets dry, then, using your hands, shred meat by breaking fish into bite-sized bits, removing any prickly tiny bones as you go; note that you will likely not be able to remove all the bones, which is okay as the smallest ones are so fine that they don’t really pose a threat.
Transfer picked fish to a large bowl and mix with chayote, carrot, and onion. Add vinegar, olive oil (if using), rum (if using), cilantro (if using), and Scotch bonnet pepper and stir to combine. Season with salt only if necessary; the dish should be quite salty already given the amount of salted herring, so only add more salt if it falls short of its desirably salty flavor. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.
Serve with hearty Jamaican water crackers or cream crackers and avocado, if desired.
Salted herring fillets (also sometimes called smoked herring fillets) are sold at Jamaican and Caribbean markets. Use more herring if you want a more intensely salty pickle, and less if you want a little more vegetable relative to the herring to cut some of the intensity.
Rum, olive oil, and cilantro are ingredients we like to add to our version for more flavor, though they aren’t traditional. Feel free to leave them out for a more standard version.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Pickled herring can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks in an airtight container.