A glorious dish my grandmother used to make on some Fridays or special occasions whenever she’d spot a freshly-caught grouper from the fishmonger. This recipe is from Beirut, whereas it can be made differently in other coastal cities like Saida. The Beirut version flavors the rice pilaf with caramelized onions “burnt onions”, cumin and a fish stock in which the fish head and tails and bones are browned to seal in the flavor. In other communities, this dish is prepared without caramelizing the onions, but with the add-on of spices such as saffron, turmeric, caraway or cardamom. Both versions are exquisite.
Fish pilaf (Seeyadiyeh)
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Passive Time: 5 minutes
1 cup vegetable oil
3 lbs grouper or other white fish with head, cleaned and scaled previously at the fishmonger and chopped at the head and tail to leave the body intact; substitute several fish heads sold separately and get 2 lbs of fish fillet (cut into 4" serving pieces) to poach quickly in the fish stock.
5 cups sliced yellow or white onions
1 Tbsp salt (adjust to taste)
3 Tbsp ground cumin (adjust to taste)
1/2 Tbsp black pepper
1/2 cup pine nuts, fried previously in oil or ghee till golden, drained
1/2 cup almonds, fried previously in oil or ghee till golden, drained
2 cups long-grain rice such as American or jasmine rice
5 1/2 cups water
1 large lemon, juiced
1/2 cup cornstarch
2 bunches radishes (optional, to garnish)
1. Mix the cornstarch, cumin, salt and black pepper. If using fish heads, dip them into the flour mixture. If using the actual large fish head and tail, dip them in the starch mixture. Heat the oil in a large skillet and fry the fish pieces on both sides till golden brown. Remove from the oil and transfer to a Dutch oven or soup pot.
2. Fry the onions in the fish oil until the onions caramelize. Meanwhile, add the water to the fish head and tail and simmer to make the fish stock for 30 minutes. Strain the fish stock and pour back into the pot. Add the caramelized onions to the stock and cook a few minutes to blend. Insert an immersion blender and puree the mixture. Taste it to adjust seasoning. Transfer one cup of the broth to a small saucepan to make the sauce later.
4. Bring the remaining fish broth to a simmer and add the rice. Cover and cook the rice for 15 minutes. Cook the fish fillets on top of the rice the last five minutes of cooking. Serve the rice with the fish, a garnish of fried pine nuts and almonds and sauce on the side.
5. Thicken the sauce with a tablespoon of cornstarch diluted in 1/4 cup cold broth or water; bring the sauce to a simmer, add the cornstarch mixture and stir till thickened. Add the juice of a lemon if desired. Adjust seasoning.
Reserve about a cup of the onions to use as a garnish; sprinkle them with salt and squeeze them after 15 minutes to remove the extra onion juice. Fry them after frying the other onions till crisp and drain them on paper towels. Sprinkle on the rice pilaf over the fish fillet as a garnish.
It is easier to "burn" several fish heads, tails and bones, in order to make the fish stock and use cleaned-up fish fillet separately to serve with the rice. Since not all fish markets sell fish heads, its a good idea to inquire first. In the US, the best markets for a variety of seafood are the Asian supermarkets. In Lebanon, I would check with a reputable fish market to make sure the fish are freshly caught or buy frozen fish fillet and heads separately.
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