Bokkoms up on South Africa’s west coast
THERE is no mistaking the odour. They are bokkoms and there is perhaps no food in South Africa that exudes a sense of place quite as potently. The place in question is the country’s west coast.
Leave cosmopolitan Cape Town behind to head north along the coast and soon you enter a desolate landscape where the Atlantic surf crashes against the arid plains of the interior. It is a sparsely populated realm of isolated farmsteads and scruffy villages. Its principal bounty is the ocean, even if some of that catch — rock lobster, abalone — now requires strict protection.
None of these fruits of the Atlantic, however, evokes the coast as strongly as the humble bokkom: a small fish pickled and hung out to dry on string in times of plenty to provide for leaner days.
Like so many of the world’s foods that convey a sense of place, bokkoms were born of necessity. The twisted forms of this regional specialty echo the parched landscape and the gnarled faces of the men who for years have fished in these waters.
I first encounter bokkoms at the fish market in Paternoster, one of the isolated towns strung along the coast. Early Portuguese seafarers called here and at nearby Saldanha Bay centuries ago and the town’s name may have something to do with the Latin version of The Lord’s Prayer. Paternoster has become an artists’ haven of sorts, but it retains a strong flavour of the fishing village it once was.
Bokkoms are an acquired taste, somewhere between anchovies, gentleman’s relish and the fish sauce of Southeast Asia, combining sea, putrefaction and salt.
In addition to the native form, the fishmonger also offers Paternoster First Aid Kits, plastic bags containing two bokkom fillets and a miniature of local firewater. Bokkoms are far from fine-dining fare and yet, on a Saturday afternoon at the Paternoster Winkel — the local shop also known as Oep ve Koep, a name of such poetic Afrikaans allusion as to defy translation — I discover a refined side to this traditional poor man’s food.
At the six or so rustic tables set under trees behind the shop, young chef Kobus van der Merwe serves some delightfully local dishes. There is bobotie — a Malay-inspired bake as old as the Cape itself — with the local touch of angelfish rather than the customary lamb or beef. And, happily, there is bokkom on toast. The fillets are served between toasted slices of coarse white bread with a citrusy drizzle and a smattering of local herbs, some of which have been grown in the retired skiff at the back of the garden.
There is a clutch of succulent leaves on the plate: ‘‘Dune spinach,’’ Kobus says.
He goes on to explain that bokkoms are traditionally made from harders, a species of mullet, but that ‘‘the fishing methods for harders in the sensitive Berg River estuary mean there are doubts about sustainability.
‘ ‘ So I have found myself a source of bokkoms made from maasbanker [or scad].’’
As inconceivable as the idea that bokkoms might ever run out is the thought of this coast without them. To South Africans, the West Coast is more than a geographic designation, it is an entire culture. Mere mention of the word bokkoms can evoke the spirit of that culture in a flash.
Bokkoms are small fish that are pickled and strung up to dry