Jamaican Pickled Herring Recipe

Why This Recipe Works

  • Soaking the preserved herring fillets rehydrates the salted fish and removes enough salt to make shredding easier and eating pleasant.
  • The combination of the salty, smoky herring with spicy tart vinegar and crisp vegetables is tempered by the water crackers, making it a very satisfying snack.

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.

Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

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. 

Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

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.

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