Samak Harrah

Samak Harrah

Blending Mediterranean subtleties with an uncharacteristically
Arabian fiery climax, samak harrah is a whole white fish that is
fried then baked in its own juices with a selection of spices.

Fish – grilled, baked or, less commonly, fried – has been the essence of eastern Mediterranean cooking for centuries. The fishing fleets of Lebanon and northern Syria, the descendants of the seafaring Phoenicians, long ago placed fish at the heart of the region’s culinary traditions. The dish’s spices were carried to Arabian ports by traders returning from southern India and Zanzibar, then transported across the deserts of Arabia to the Levant.

You’ll need
1 whole white fish (such as
snapper), around 2–2.5kg
(4½–5½lb) in size (make
sure the fish has been
½ cup (125mL) olive oil
5 cloves of garlic, peeled
Handful of finely chopped
fresh coriander (cilantro)
1 cup (250mL) tahini
½ cup (125mL) water
½ cup (125mL) lemon juice
½ tsp hot chilli pepper, to
2 tbs pinenuts, to serve

Cooking Method
1 Pat the fish dry with paper towel or a tea towel, then open two cuts along each side of the fish. Sprinkle salt both inside and out, cover and leave in the fridge for up to 2 hours.
2 Pat the fish dry again, then heat the oil to a high temperature in a large frying pan and fry the fish for 2–3 minutes on each side, but do not cook it through. Place the fish in a lightly oiled baking dish.
3 With a pestle and mortar, grind the garlic, 1 tsp of salt and the coriander until combined.
4 Remove most of the oil from the frying pan before heating again. Add the garlic-coriander mixture and fry until crisp but not burnt. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
5 Combine the tahini and water while beating it to thicken the consistency. Fold in the lemon juice when thick, then stir in the garliccoriander mixture and chilli pepper to taste.
6 Pour the mixture over the fish to cover, then bake for 30–35 minutes at 180–200ºC (350–200ºF). Remove when the fish is cooked through and the sauce is simmering.
7 While the fish is in the oven, gently fry the pine nuts with a little oil until lightly toasted.
8 Sprinkle the fish with the pine nuts and serve.
TIP This dish is easily prepared at home. Ask your fishmonger to clean and scale the fish to cut back on your own preparation time.

Tasting notes
This dish celebrates an exotic cocktail of flavours from the spice bearing traditions of the Arabs while also showing fidelity to that great tenet of Mediterranean cooking: take the freshest ingredients and interfere with them as little as possible. The result? A sophisticated balancing act in which the fish cleverly remains star of the show. Garlic and chilli pepper add the fire and bite, while coriander and lemon juice bathe the fish in freshness. Tahini smoothes over their differences with a dense and reassuring texture. Syria may be off limits but if you eat samak harrah in Jordan or Lebanon, the soundtrack to your meal will almost certainly be the mournful strains of an Arabic diva and the muezzin call to prayer.

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