Spiced Fish (Samke Harra)

November 8, 2009  •  Category:

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

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  1. Rub the fish all over with a cut lemon. Pat dry. Heat the oven to 400F.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


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  1. 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.
  2. Grind the walnuts until almost powdery and set aside.
  3. 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.
  4. Taste the sauce and add more lemon juice  or salt to your liking. Add the walnuts and stir to mix.


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  1. Skin the fish and debone it as much as possible. Then put it back together on a serving platter.
  2. Pour the sauce over the fish dabbing it with a spatula,  leaving the head intact.
  3. Garnish with parsley or cilantro leaves, pomegranate seeds, toasted pine nuts or walnuts and an olive to modestly cover the eye of the fish.
  4. Serve warm or at room temperature.



25 Comments  •  Comments Feed

  1. Ivy says:

    Most of the fish you mention, we eat them often in Greece and they are always with the head on 🙂 Very interesting method of preparing the fish.

  2. Rosa says:

    Beautiful! That fish must taste incredibly good!



  3. Maninas says:

    I was very excited to find out your grandmother was Dalmatian! Where from? 🙂

  4. Arlette says:

    wow .. just wow

    you are teasing me so badly today…. Oh Lord I miss this food so much
    this is the way I prepare it too, My father was the best to cook fish.

    I miss a true fish market in the North… all we can get are lake fish, which will not the same with our recipes

    thanks so much for posting this… and also for teasing me… and now I need to taste it if you don’t mind since you
    opened my appetite.!!!!!

  5. Peter says:

    I prefer whole fish and I just love how you garnished it with the lemon slices! Just curious, what kind of fish did you use here?

  6. Alépine says:

    J’écris mon commentaire en français cette fois ci ce sera plus simple ! Ton poisson est tout simplement magnifique ! Les écailles de citron c’est super joli ! Et j’imagine bien sûr qu’il était très bon…
    On retrouve ce plat sur la côte syrienne aussi.

  7. Maninas says:

    :))) Dubrovnik is one of the most beautiful cities in Croatia, and certainly one of my favourites. A stunning walled city, with most impressive history. It used to be a free merchant republic (before Napoleon ran it over); most impressive, when you realise her neighbours were the mighty Turkey, the predatory Venice and the Habsburghs (that ruled Croatia). Currently, it is famous for its beauty and art. If you haven’t been yet, do visit. (I’m from near Zadar, up the coast from Dubrovnik. Still beautiful, but not as impressive.)

    Did your gran cook any Dalmatian/Croatian dishes? It would be lovely to read about her.

    • Joumana says:

      Maninas: Dubrovnik sounds magical! I am planning a visit, especially when I will spend longer periods in Lebanon, since it is not too far! My gran was actually born in Egypt. Her father was a captain in the merchant marine and her mom came from Trieste. Family lore is that one of the cousins opened the ball in the Habsburgh court one year. Neither my gran nor her mother cooked. It was that kind of life! People doing the cooking for you. So, my aunt tells me that they had a wonderful Greek cook who use to do a great pasticcio, encased in a homemade phyllo dough. Can’t wait to try my hand at that one!
      Is Croatia invaded by tourists and investors or is it still unspoilt?
      Take care, Joumana

  8. Mona says:

    The fish is so perfectly decorated! Looks gorgeous! I am a great fan of seafood too, and Red snapper is one of my favs.

  9. Evalia says:

    J’adore la reconstitution des écaille en citron, magnifique plat!

  10. Bellini Valli says:

    This dish is so beautifully presented…a real eye-opener.

  11. spice says:

    wow….it’s looking amazing…very nice presentation….bookmarked this recipe.

  12. Pat says:

    Anybody tried this recipe.

  13. Patty says:

    I tried many recipes from Taste of Beirut book and I loved each and every one of them. Your instructions and tips are tremendously helpful. The book has the Beirut style of samkeh harra. The fish is fried instead of baked. This recipe here is just what I was looking for. I have a question about preparing it a day in advance. Can I bake the fish and prepare the sauce ahead of time but garnish on the day it’s being served? How best I can reheat the fish? Thanks!

  14. joumana says:

    Of course. Preparing the fish in advance is done in all the restaurants serving it~ you can reheat the fish in a slow oven for a few minutes if you like. (say 325F for 10 minutes)

  15. samke says:

    Hello Joumana,

    Wow! I like the fish that is so perfectly dressed. I want your newsletter to subscribe here. Keep up the good work

    Nazmin Sarker

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