Ah sweet summer is back. It only took ten months or so. But that’s ok. To mark the return of the season, I wanted to make something a little summery: fish.
I also figured I’d do fish because my mom had been suggesting for a while “why don’t you do the stuffed fish? the one I do?” And I’d entertain the idea and forget about it, because, well fish smells and I thought it was going to be this horrid procedure. When in fact it was anything but that. The smell part yes, but everything else was good.
Egyptians do love fish. Especially if you’re from Alexandria, you’re a fish feind. Up there they have these amazing on-the-sea places where you pick whatever fish they have caught that day and they prepare it for you right there. Fried, or stuffed and grilled. Either one is delicious. The main staple that fish is served with throughout the country is rice. But not just any rice. Special ‘fish’ rice.
One summer when I was visiting family in Cairo, my cousin’s mom had us over for lunch (the big meal of the day). I loved going there because she would always cook things but take her time doing it. I mean really take her time, but she still seemed to enjoy the whole process. That day, she was explaining to me how she would prepare the fish. And then she showed me the rice. She asked me if I knew about it? I said not really. She went on to explain that “you always serve this kind of rice with the fish”. “Why?” I asked. “You just do. It goes well together”. And there it is.
The rice is simply a mix of sauteed onions, pepper, and a pinch of cinnamon. But because it is so nicely balanced, it goes wonderfully with any type of fish.
As for the the fish, my great-aunt showed me once how to fry the fish in clarified butter, winking at me and saying this is how I can cook for my husband one day; the way to a man’s heart, she told me, was through his stomach. While I love her enthusiasm for cooking, I wasn’t convinced that I could woo my husband-to-be through heavily fried fish . Instead, I’ve opted for the traditional stuffing of fish.
Egypt has fish coming from the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Nile; though I don’t believe the latter to be as popular any more. Back in the pharaonic days, the Nile was revered because not only was it a source of water for agriculture, but also for its fish. As I mentioned in the last entry on sham el-nessim, one of the main ways the spring is celebrated is with the salted fish fiseekh that is from the Nile. When the spring would return and the Nile would flood, it would be the time for everyone to go fishing. If you venture down the Nile, you always come across many fishermen in their small boats fishing throughout the day. So many still depend on the river for fish; but not as much as they used to.
The Mediterranean coast, west of Alexandria, used to be dotted with little fishing villages. These were pristine little places that the city people used to go visit for a quick get-away from the bustling cities. One area in particular is called Mersa Matruh. My uncle told me about how clear the water used to be and how quiet it was. Now, of course, these areas have been highly developed and there are sprawling condos everywhere, and loud music, and the tranquility of the villages is a thing of the past. Though the water is still amazingly clear. When I went there, I found young guys driving around in their cars, blasting Amr Diab, while families lounged on the beaches all day. It still has a wonderfully sleepy feel to it; like a suburb. But you can still find seafood all throughout the towns that serve amazing food.
The Red Sea resort towns are now teeming with tourists and all kinds of night life. It’s one of the main hubs of tourism for the country. Of course, not too long ago, these coast lines were also the picture of tranquility, but alas, once a secret is out, it’s hard to hide it from everyone. The water there is clear and warm, and you can see all kinds of sea creatures if you go snorkeling or scuba diving. But just like the north, seafood places are in abundance and are very affordable.
In Cairo, among all the street-food vendors, there are seafood fast-food type of places. I came across one a couple years ago. It was tucked into a small side street in Heliopolis and was packed. It was the type of place where you point out which sea-creature you want, tell them quickly how you want it, and they kill it, and grill it for you on the spot, wrap it up and send you on your way. Delicious. And cheap.
Stuffing fish is done differently throughout the country, but it still relies on four main ingredients: fresh coriander leaves, onions, garlic, and lemons. Coriander, or as some may know it, cilantro, has its roots in ancient cuisine in China and all across the Mediterranean. Coriander seeds, which have a completely different taste all together, have been found in pharaonic tombs, so we know that the ancient Egyptians have been using coriander in their cooking for many, many years now. But it doesn’t grow wild in Egypt, so many believe the ancient Egyptians began cultivating coriander themselves. It is native to North Africa, Southern Europe, and Southwest Asia.
As for the type of fish, one of the most popular fishes eaten there is called ‘el bolti’ or tilapia in english. It’s a meatier white fish, that doesn’t have too much of an overly fish taste and works well when you grill or roast it. Apparently, tilapia was seen as a symbol of fertility and renewal of life, possibly because of how resilient they were to disease and thus able to reproduce fairly easily.
Total preparation and cooking time: 1.5 hours
Yield: 4 persons
2 cups of short grain rice
4 cups of water
1 white onion
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon of butter/oil
1. If you can’t do it yourself (I can’t), ask someone at the fish counter to clean and cut the fish open – flay it open
2. As you can see, I tried it myself and cut it up the back; it works but just means you have more bones to eat through.
3. Peel all the garlic
4. Using a mortar and pestle or a food processor, add the coriander, garlic and a squeeze of lime juice.
5. Keep mixing these ingredients until it forms a type of paste; add more lime juice if it is still rather dry.
14. While the fish is in the oven, you can start preparing the rice.
15. Dice the onions.
16. In a pot, add about a tablespoon of butter or oil and sautée the onions until they are soft.
17. Add the water and salt to taste.
18. When the water is boiling, add the rice and cinnamon.
19. Mix everything and lower the heat to minimum.
20. Cover and check on rice in about 20 – 30 minutes.
And you will find this fish to be so moist and flavourful, but not at all too fishy. When eating this dish, most families will have some bread and salad on the side to accompany this and maybe a nice glass of beer.