This is a dish that hails from Tripoli, Lebanon’s Northern port city, but is loved by everyone in the country and beyond. It is a show stopping dish. It is usually reserved for special occasions. Perfect for a buffet. It can be eaten warm or at room temperature and can be prepared the day before and garnished a couple of hours before serving.
When I decided to make it, I knew I would head to the Asian supermarket where I find the best selection of fish. Unlike most other supermarkets, they keep the head on the fish! We grew up eating real fish, with head and tails that my grandmother would get from the city’s fishermen. We would eat the fish on Fridays, usually fried and we’d eat the whole thing (minus the head) , starting from the tail, that I loved because it was the crispy part.
I remember feeling a bit of an adrenaline rush because there was the element of danger. Since the fish we ate was whole, we had to pull out the bones ourselves. What if a bone got caught in somebody’s throat? What if that person who got the fish bone in their throat was my brother—who I felt at the time certainly deserving of a struggle with some fish bones? It was always an exciting lunch in a stealthy way.
At the Vietnamese market, they will clean it and then it is just a matter of assembling the spices and baking it. I need to point out that this fish is deboned after baking to prevent any unnecessary accidents; however, there is always the possibility of catching a bone or two.
What type of fish is suitable for this dish? A white-fleshed fish, weighing about 3 pounds, such as sea bass, dogfish, grey mullet, grouper, John Dory or cod. You can get fillets, too, if it is more convenient.
What is the procedure to follow? First, bake the fish (can be done ahead). Second, make the sauce and garnish the fish with it.
I consulted two books for this recipe. The Arab Table by May S. Bsisu, has an excellent recipe, but is a bit time-consuming. Fragrance of the Earth by Nada Saleh has an excellent recipe which is rather speedy. I combined both.
INGREDIENTS: This quantity should yield 4 servings
- 1 white fish, scaled and cleaned, weighing about 3 pounds
- 1 bunch of fresh cilantro, stems discarded and leaves chopped
- 1 head of garlic, cloves peeled (at least 12 cloves total)
- 1 cup of walnut halves (can add pine nuts or pistachios)
- 2 chili peppers such as jalapeño, or red chili pepper
- 3/4 cup of lemon juice
- extra lemons
- 1 tablespoon of ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon of ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon of ground cardamom (or cinnamon)
- 1/2 teaspoon chili pepper flakes
- 1 cup (or more) tahini
- 1/2 cup (or more) of water
- salt, pepper, to taste
- 1/2 cup of extra-virgin olive oil, or more as needed
COOKING THE FISH
- Rub the fish all over with a cut lemon. Pat dry. Heat the oven to 400F.
- Mash the cloves of garlic with a pinch of salt and the sliced jalapeño peppers (can do it in a mini-processor), in order to obtain a paste. Add the chopped cilantro leaves. Pulse and when it is well mixed, divide the mixture in half, reserving one half for the sauce later. Add the cardamom (or cinnamon) , cumin, pepper, coriander, and mix it all together. Add about 1/4 cup of lemon juice and olive oil to the mixture.
- Spread the paste evenly inside the fish and a bit on top. If using fish fillets, just rub it onto the fillets. Cut a few lemon slices and place them on top of the fish and all around. Cover the fish with foil and bake for about 30 to 45 minutes until the fish flakes easily with a fork and is cooked.
MAKING THE SAUCE:
- Take the garlic and jalapeño paste (the half that you have used already) along with the cilantro. Heat 1/4 cup of olive oil in a skillet and add the paste, stirring. Do not let the garlic burn, so cook for only 3 minutes at the most until fragrant. Let cool.
- Grind the walnuts until almost powdery and set aside.
- Heat the tahini in a saucepan, adding 1/2 cup of the lemon juice and a bit of water to obtain a smooth sauce. Add the garlic and cilantro paste. When the sauce thickens and boils, remove from the heat.
- Taste the sauce and add more lemon juice or salt to your liking. Add the walnuts and stir to mix.
FINAL ASSEMBLY OF THE DISH:
- Skin the fish and debone it as much as possible. Then put it back together on a serving platter.
- Pour the sauce over the fish dabbing it with a spatula, leaving the head intact.
- Garnish with parsley or cilantro leaves, pomegranate seeds, toasted pine nuts or walnuts and an olive to modestly cover the eye of the fish.
- Serve warm or at room temperature.
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