Aromatic Spicy Fish Dish with
Yellow Rice and Raisins
In just 30 minutes, you can have a feast, one that is truly delicious, satisfying and healthy.
Traditionally, the fish is layered with the rice and raisin mix, and hence the name mtabbag simach (layered fish dish). I make it simpler by just arranging the fish pieces and the raisins on the rice itself. To make it lighter, I broil the fish instead of frying it.Start by cooking the rice, and in the meantime prepare the raisin mix. Ten minutes before serving the dish, start broiling the fish, and there you have it!
A Bit of History:
|Gold lapis lazuli fish|
Fish was consumed fresh and smoked. The roes were preserved separately and eaten as a delicacy. They were the caviar of the Sumerians. From fish they made the fermented sauce 'siqqu' for both kitchen and table use, similar to the oriental fish sauce.
|Detail from the Standard of Ur|
Allusions to fish were made in the Sumerian hymns and incantations. A hymn in praise of the goddess Ishtar of Uruk associates the goddess with fish. It joyfully credits her for prosperity and plenitude. Thanks to her the channels were filled with fish. Another hymn describes a festival in honor of Ishtar: the table was laden with butter, milk, dates, cheese, and seven fishes.
Interestingly, during the second half of the reign of Hammurabi (second millennium BC), mention of fish noticeably decreased in texts, and the word ‘fishermen’ was synonymous with ‘lawless people.’ One of the reasons could be that people escaping justice at the time used to find refuge in the southern marshes, the homeland of fishermen. This was by no means an indication that people stopped consuming fish. The Greek historian Herodotus (d. 425 BC), for instance, in the account of his visit to Babylon (I: 200) mentions that there were tribes in Babylonia who ate nothing but fish.
|Sumerian miniature fish fountain|
Here are verses on fish composed by the famous Abbasid gourmet poet Kushajim (d. c. 961), as depicted in al-Warraq’s 10th-century cookbook (Kitab al-Tabeekh, Chapter 11, my translation in Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens, pp. 113-14):
Teeming with the choicest fish, zajr, shabbut, and bunni,
Like fresh dates of orchards or lusciously contoured arms of beauties.
The preferred medieval method for cooking the fish was frying. They believed it was easier on the digestion, and helped alleviate its harmful effects. Fried fish was prepared by sprinkling it with flour and salt and frying it in sesame oil. Sour based sauces and dips called sibagh صباغ were always offered with fish dishes to further aid the digestion. Vinegar was the basic ingredient used in most of these sauces to which might be added garlic, onion, mint, parsley, mustard, caraway, thyme, raisins, walnuts, almonds coriander, pomegranate seeds, or sumac.
A specialty of the Abbasid Prince Ibrahim bin al-Mahdi (d. 839), half brother of Harun al-Rasheed, was to put a huge live fish in a basin filled with juice of red grapes and leave it there until it drinks as much as possible of the juice. The fish was then cleaned and roasted, and served with sauce (sibagh) made with wine vinegar, parsley, mint, and caraway.
Fish tongues were a treat. Hundreds of them would be cooked as qarees (fish aspic). Another recipe prides itself on baking a fish, which results in a roasted head, poached middle, and fried tail. The recipe ends thus: For each part, prepare a sauce that goes with it, so that nobody would suspect that the whole fish was actually cooked as one piece, God willing (al-Warraq, Chapter 33).
Nowadays, more or less, the same types of fish still swim in the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, mainly shabbout, bunni and gittan (Barbus xanthopterus).
|Iraqi woman selling fish|
For the rice:
2 cups rice, if aged variety is used, such as basmati, it needs to be washed and soaked for at least 30 minutes, and then drained and used
3½ cups water
1½ teaspoons salt
4 cardamoms pods, keep whole
1 cinnamon, 1-inch stick
For the raisin mix:
1½ teaspoons curry powder
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¾ cup raisins
1 teaspoon crushed noomi Basra (dried lime)
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, crushed
¾ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
½ cup chopped parsley
2 tablespoons hot water
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon yellow mustard
2. To prepare the raisin mix: In a medium skillet, sauté onion in oil until translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in turmeric and curry powder in the last 30 seconds. Add the rest of the raisin-mix ingredients, and stir and cook for about five minutes. Keep warm.
3.Now the fish: turn on heat of the broiler. Line a shallow baking pan with aluminum foil, and drizzle it with half tablespoon of oil. Arrange the fish pieces on the pan leaving space between pieces. Brush them with half the mustard and half the honey, drizzle with the remaining oil, and sprinkle with salt.
Broil the fish for 5 minutes, then turn over the pieces, brush them with the remaining mustard and honey, and let them cook until surface is crisp and golden, about 5 minutes, or until flesh is flaky when poked with a fork. Immediately, spread the rice in a big platter, arrange the fish pieces on the rice, and spread the raisin-mix between and around the fish pieces.