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Samak Yemeni: Spicy Yemenite Fish Stew

So, I’ve been making this lush and rawther exotic fish stew for years, but it took a recipe request from one of Mr. T’s colleagues for me to get my act together and write it down. The dish is really quite special–simply TEEMING with flavor, but it manages somehow to maintain its coherence under an onslaught of warm spice, bright herbs, and tangy lemon.

My first intro to samak Yemeni was in a Jewish diaspora cookbook, given to me by a friend with the injunction that I was not to make fun of her bubbie’s wallpaper until I could make knishes better than hers. (In my defense, the wallpaper in question was a glossy optic white with velvet burnt orange foliate patterns.) I’ve not yet managed to make any knish, but this stew is something I keep coming back to. Also, obviously, I am a bad person, but who else gets a cookbook for cracking wise about wallpaper?

In doing further research for this post, I turned up another version from The Splendid Table, hosted by the always delightful Lynn Rossetto Kasper, but suffice to say, the much fiddled-with version below is the one that I like best as it is delicious and does not require fish stock, making oddball spice blends, or other such tomfoolery.

Even with such rich cultural antecedents, I’m still not quite sure why it all works–but it does. Even the fishiest fish is tamed–but not drowned out– by the richly spiced sauce, which in turn is enriched by the fish’s umami-y juices. The dish is spicy, but not threateningly so, with a flavor that’s at once deep and envigoratingly bright. Its captivating scent is the very definition of appetizing.

Being quite easy and very quick, it’s also perfect–served with a quick cous-cous and some salad greens–for a weeknight dinner requiring a little pizzazz. There’s no pre-sautéing of the aromatics; everything just gets dumped and simmered together. It took me some time to get over this, but having been OCD enough to have done it both ways, I can say that sautéing the onions and spices in advance makes no real difference to the recipe. There are so many strong flavors at play already that a brief simmer is all that’s required for everything to come together and get happy. Hooray for uncompromising shortcuts!

As far as the choice of fish goes, any thick-cut, firm-fleshed fish will do. Freshness is, of course, most important. That said, this spicy preparation can easily accommodate a stronger-flavored fish like bluefish or monkfish that have the added benefit of generally being less expensive than a cod or halibut. I tend to add the shrimp just because they add some textural variety, but if they’re not your thing, just bump the amount of fish up accordingly.

Samak Yemeni: Spicy Yemenite Fish Stew
Adapted from Marlena Spieler
Yield: ~6 servings

1 28oz can crushed tomato
2 lemons
2 medium onions
6 cloves garlic
1 1″ chunk fresh ginger
fresh cilantro
fresh parsley
1 hot chile pepper or squirt hot sauce
2 tsp curry powder
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 lbs thick white fish filets
1/2 lb shrimp, peeled & deveined

Empty the can of crushed tomato into a largeish (4-5qt) pot and turn the heat to medium. You’ll add the rest of the vegetables and seasonings to the pot as it comes to a simmer, stirring as you go.

Juice the two lemons, rolling them on the cutting board before cutting them in half to break up the membranes inside and thus yielding more juice. Add the juice to the pot. Peel and finely chop the onions, adding them to the pot. Peel and finely mince the ginger and garlic, adding them to the pot as well. Rinse the cilantro and parsley well and pull the leaves from the stems. Discard stems (or save for stock). Chop the leaves and, you guessed it, add them to the pot. If using a fresh chile pepper, halve, seed, mince and add to the pot to taste. Alternatively, a good squirt (~2tsp) of Sriracha or other hot sauce will do just fine. Add the spices and bring the pot to a boil.

Reduce heat so the sauce simmers gently and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes.

While the sauce is simmering, rinse and pat dry the shrimp and fish. Cut the fish into 3″ pieces.  Add the shrimp to the pot and stir in. Then add the fish. Bring the sauce up to a low boil and, stirring gently, cook about 5 more minutes, till the shrimp and fish are just cooked through. Shrimp should be pink and bouncily firm. Fish should flake when prodded with a fork.

Serve immediately with cous cous or flatbreads and a green salad.
Spieler, Marlena. The Jewish Heritage Cookbook. (London: Anness Publishing, Ltd.) 2002

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