July 19, 2011

Pickled Mackerel - Fish in a Jar

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In Hong Kong people don't like the mackerel. "Ah ya, too oily!" I overhear the ladies at the wet market cackle noisily amongst themselves. So whenever fresh mackerel appear they linger long atop the wet market's makeshift styrofoam tables even though they are priced dirt cheap. Shining fresh fish rows, glittering their silver gray stripes under hanging bare bulbs.

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First I tried them in the oven with a quick paste of miso, lemon and butter. Yum, delicious! And then sometime later, we were somehow caught onto the idea of pickling fish (actually I think we were first attracted to smoking fish, which ended up to be too difficult to do in the small confined living spaces of Hong Kong; you would only end up smoking yourself out of a home) and the recipes we found gave out mackerel as an ideal fish for pickling! So the next time we spotted those lonely rows of mackerel, we excitedly swooped and bought them all up and took them home where for the next couple of hours we slowly but surely made pickled fish. The hardest part was the careful filleting of the fish (watch those fingers!)

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The funny thing is that neither of us had ever tasted pickled fish before. But those that had taken the plunge before us were right. It's damn good. The fish is transformed by the vinegar and herbs but still keeps the fresh sea taste. It's hard to describe because it doesn't really taste like anything else. And they are addictive! You eat one and then you want to eat another. And then you kinda think, well, why not one more? It's like potato chips (which I adore). Yummy, yum! And last but not least there is that beautiful glass jar full of floating silvery fish fillets, chunks of vegetables and herbs that you can bring out of the fridge and show off to your guests!

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Pickled Mackerel Recipe
Prep time: 15 mins   Brine & Cook time: 3 hours 15 mins

Glass jar with lid


10-15 small Mackerel
2carrots, sliced
1onion, diced

Pickling Solution

4 cups white vinegar
2 cups water
1/2 cup sugar
10 cloves
2 cinnamon sticks, broken to pieces
12 black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp yellow mustard seeds
5 cardamom pods , lightly crushed

Brining Solution

1 cup salt dissolved in 8 cups water


Fillet and de-bone the mackerel, removing major bones.  Smaller bones can be left in because the vinegar will dissolve these bones.  Remove clear thin membrane over the mackerel skin.  Use your finger tips or a small knife to pick up the membrane along the cut edges of fillet.  Once you find it slowly peel the membrane completely off.

Place fish fillets in brine solution for 3 hours or until firm. Meanwhile, put all pickling solution ingredients in pan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes. Let cool.

Drain fish of brining solution, rinse with cool water, and then drain again. Carefully layer the fish fillets, carrots and onions into the glass jar for the best visual effect. When done, pour the cooled pickling solution into jar until all fish is covered. Prod fish lightly to let out any trapped air. Cover with lids and refrigerate. Ready to eat after two days, but will increase in flavour as more time passes. Keeps a few weeks in fridge.

For eating, place fish on plate, add a generous drizzle of virgin olive oil, fresh ground pepper and some capers. Good like this just by themselves, or even better if you have some good yummy bread handy to eat it with. Be sure to bring the jar out and set it up on the table so that you can show off while you enjoy your fish!

More Fishilicious Treats at The Hong Kong Cookery:

chinese jellyfish salad recipeJellyfish Salad 涼拌海蜇



  1. hello, your blog looks really yummy. just want to know whether you need to cook the fish before brine? thanks

    1. Thanks! No need to cook fish before brining. The vinegar will cook the fish. ~ellen

  2. What are the proportions on your brine? This looks so yummy!

  3. Oh, oops, just found it. Nevermind. : )

    1. Glad you found us, Lisa! Hope your pickled mackerel comes out yummy! ~ellen

  4. What kind of cardamon is used? Black or green? Thanks.

    1. Hey flipster - we used green cardamom seeds though i think black cardamom is okay as well - it will have a stronger flavor and is suitable for meat recipes -ellen

  5. Came lovely.. Would make it again.

    1. So glad! We also have to make these pickled goodies ever once in while, they're so addictive! ~ellen


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