To many Americans, the word "Arab" conjures up an image of the camel-mounted, white-robed sheik who forsakes his nomadic life in the desert only for an occasional raid into the Western-held-city.
The thought of such a character sitting down to a delectable seafood dinner is oddly inconsistent with the environment we tend to imagine for him. Yet this is precisely what many families in the Arab world do each evening.
Disappointing as it may be to our ideas, the fact is that the proportion of Arabs living as pastoral nomads in the desert today may exceed no more than 5 percent of the populations of the Arab countries.
The populations are concentrated along the coasts of the southern and eastern Mediterranean, the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Arabian-Persian Gulf.
Plying the seas for trade and for fishing has for centuries figured prominently in the economies of the Arab world, and fish is served wrapped with vegetables and egg and deep-fried in a Tunisian brik, flaked and sauteed with herbs and spices in Beirut, or broiled on racks on open fires in Baghdad.
Fish is most commonly broiled and served with the Arab version of tartar sauce, called taratour, which is made from a mixture of tahini, sesame paste, lemon, and garlic.
The following two recipes were passed on to me by my uncle, who once operated a restaurant in the old city of Acre, Palestine, now incorporated into the state of Israel, but still a city with much of its Arab character.
Both recipes are typical Palestinian dishes for the eastern Mediterranean fish named by the Arabs, Sultan Ibrahim, in recognition of its princely flavors. My uncle favors red snapper as a substitute, and I have found fresh haddock to be more than adequate.
The recipes serve 4 when complemented by other dishes such as a vegetable rice pilaf and a salad dressed with olive oil, fresh lemon juice, and dried mint. Sammak Harr (Hot Fish) 1 1/2 to 2 pounds haddock fillets 4 tablespoons olive oil 1 fresh coriander, available in Chinese markets as Chinese parsley, or in Mexican markets as cilantro 3 medium cloves garlic 3 fresh green hot peppers
Rub haddock with small quantity of olive oil to prevent sticking to the baking pan. Bake at 375 degrees F. about 15 minutes. The haddock should be fully cooked but still moist.
Meanwhile, crush garlic, and chop finely the coriander and hot peppers. The number of peppers should depend on your liking for piquant foods, and the kind of peppers you have. If you prefer mild foods, remove pepper seeds.
Saute garlic, coriander, and peppers in 3 tablespoons olive oil for 4 to 5 minutes. When fish is done, remove from oven, flake, toss with herb mixture, and serve. Sammak Tajin (Fish with Tajin) 1 1/2 to 2 pounds haddock fillets 2 large or 3 medium yellow onions 3 tablespoons olive oil 1 clove garlic, crushed 2/3 cup tahini (sesame paste) Juice of 1/2 lemon Water 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Rub haddock with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and bake at 375 degrees F. about 15 minutes. Slice onions and saute in olive oil until fully browned.Before using tahini, mix it thoroughly. In a separate bowl mix crushed garlic, tahini, and lemon juice, mix well. Lemon juice causes tahini to thicken; water should be added gradually while mixing to loosen mixture to consistency of heavy cream. Pour mixture into skillet with onions, stirring over low heat until it thickens slightly.
Break haddock into chunks, placing them in a 2-inch deep casserole dish. Pour onion- tahini mixture over the fish, bake for 10 minutes in oven at 350 degrees F. Remove, dust with cinnamon, serve.
Both dishes should be served with liberal quantities of Arabian bread (pocket or pita bread), which is used to scoop up mouthfuls of the fish.