Here, fishy fishy. Fish is an important part of life in the Arabian/Persian Gulf. The inhabitants have a long tradition of fishing and pearl diving amid the colorful corals. Savory dishes, interesting aromas, and fish markets are all aplenty in Gulf countries, like Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE. Since the Gulf is at the crossroads of India, Iran, Turkey and Eastern Europe, Gulf dishes have many influences.
The Gulf is home to over 700 species of fish, but there are a couple of breeds which are very popular,- zubaidi (silver pomfret) and hammour (grouper). The fish is usually grilled and eaten with rice or bread and Arabic salad. Aromatic fish stew, king prawns, and baked fish with savory fillings, like cumin, tomato, currant, and chilies.
In other parts of the Arab world seafood is also popular. In North Africa fish tajin is a common slow cooked dish with carrots, potatoes, prunes and couscous. In the Levant part of the Mediterranean fish is prepared with paprika, lemon, parsley, coriander, onions, and garlic. Though there aren’t as many fish in the eastern Mediterranean, fishing is still a way of life for many along the coast.
The following is a recipe for Iraqi fish, called masgouf, apparently once served along the waterfront in Baghdad. One day in Iraq, my colleagues invited me for a traditional experience. They set up an open fire pit in the back yard, and placed whole spiced fish on netted spits around the fire. It was an unforgettable experience.
Masgouf: Iraqi Grilled Fish
2 pounds of fresh whole white fish (trout, blue fish, catfish, etc.)
2 onions, finely chopped
2 tomatoes, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, crushed
½ cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon curry powder
½ cup parsley, finely chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 tablespoons tomato paste
oil for the pan
salt and pepper
2 dried limes (optional)
Split the fish open along its spine, lengthwise, to spread the fish flat open on a tray. Do not remove the skin or scales, but you can remove the head. Wash the fish with water and rub salt and lemon along the inside.
Sauce: Heat oil on medium heat in a frying pan. Add the thinly sliced onions to the pan and stir until they are clear. Add salt and black pepper, to taste. Add garlic and stir for a couple of minutes. Split the dried limes open and remove the black pulp. Add it to the pan, and combine with the tomato paste with fresh lemon juice, oil, and curry. Cook for about 5 minutes or until the sauce thickens. Can optionally include tamarind in the tomato sauce.
Traditional grilling: start a fire and skewer the fish on two wooden or metal stakes (see picture). Place it facing the flames. When the fish is well cooked, place it on a tray and pour the sauce on the inside.
Heat the oven at 500 degrees. Oil the baking pan and place the fish flat on it. Cover the inside of the fish with half of the tomato mixture. Bake for about 20 minutes. Can broil the fish for another 10 minutes so the topping gets blackened.
When fish is cooked top it with the remaining sauce and with the sliced tomatoes, remaining sauce, and chopped parsley.
Serve with plain basmati, saffron rice, or vermicelli rice. Serve with bread, Arabic salads, and pickles. Eat with fingers for the real deal.