Region: Arab Levant, Syria
Difficulty: Easy but long cooking time
The sea at Jeble on the Syrian coast is so unlike the tourist meccas of Spain's Costa del Sol or the French Riviera. It is desolate, quiet, the waves pounding against the sea break, hardly different from how it was in 1550, when a merchantman from Acre might have passed by on his return journey to Venice. Jeble has a tiny port where a handful of fishermen barely make a living. The fishing has never been good in the eastern Mediterranean, and with the lower counts of phosphorus in the water, important for the growth of plankton that fish live off of, it is worse.
Fayez Sayidat, an architect in Jeble, took me on a walking tour of the old town, pointing out the centuries-old hammam (public bath), the Mosque of Sultan Ibrahim, and the raw coastline without a single tourist facility of any kind as far as the eye could see. I was told that the Arabic name for red mullet, sultan Ibrahim, comes from this sultan, a rich man who gave up everything to devote himself to piety nearly a thousand years ago.
For lunch we would return to the house of Fayez's mother-in-law, Amal Halaby, so I could follow her in making deep-fried sultan Ibrahim and samaka harra. There are many different recipes for this spiced fish dish popular along the coast from Latakia in northern Syria to Gaza. Some recipes call for baking the fish whole, such as this one, and others remove the flesh to make a kind of fish hash. This recipe of Amal's, mother of my friend Joseph Halabi, used sea bass and a spiced chili pepper and tomato sauce coating. Amal Halaby lives with her husband, Shukri, a half block from the Mediterranean Sea and they often have fish because they are virtually at the port. Because the catch is so meager, very fresh fish is consumed in Jeble where they are landed, while Aleppines and Damascenes have only frozen fish available to them. We ate this samaka harra right off the bone with warm pieces of khubz 'arabi (Arabic flatbread or pita bread).
Yield: Makes 6 servings
Preparation Time: 1:20 hours
1. In a mortar, pound the garlic and salt together until mushy. Put the chili peppers and onion in a food processor and chop finely. Add the tomato and process in bursts until it is chopped. Remove to a medium-size bowl and stir in the pounded garlic, tomato paste, and cumin.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Rinse the fish and pat dry with paper towels. Score the fish in 3 places on each side. Lay the fish in a baking pan and coat with the olive oil on both sides. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, then cover with the chili pepper sauce. Bake the fish until the dorsal fin feels as if it will come off with a tug, about 1 hour, basting with the accumulated olive oil in the baking pan. Sprinkle with the coriander and serve.
Variation: Preheat a gas grill on low for 20 minutes or prepare a charcoal fire. Place the fish on a rack inside a large aluminum baking pan, for example, the kind you use to roast a whole turkey. Place the aluminum pan on the grilling grate, draw down the hood or cover, and grill until done, 45 minutes to 1 hour, making sure some smoke can escape through vent holes. The fish is done when one of the dorsal fins almost comes off when you pull on it.