The Sephardic Answer to Gefilte Fish

February 7, 2018

Although I’m an only child, I was compensated for this unfortunate circumstance in the form of cousins whom I regard as brothers and sisters. The dynamics of a relationship with a cousin can be an extraordinary thing. You have enough diluted shared DNA to recognize a family resemblance, but you don’t have the competitive baggage that siblings often have. It’s like having the best of all worlds: a deep and binding sibling-like shared history without the tension that can come from growing up in the same household.

My cousin Dudi and I barely knew each other until recently, yet we share a connection that feels like it was cultivated over a lifetime. When my parents immigrated to the U.S., Dudi was not yet born. Our 10-year age gap prevented us from getting to know each other until a few years ago.

Dudi’s grandmother and my maternal grandmother were sisters, and they had a love-hate relationship until Dudi’s grandmother’s death. According to Dudi, they would fight on the phone and hang up on each other regularly, like two little girls, full of drama even as old women. My mother adored her Aunt Adela and would often spend weekends off from the army at Adela’s house, which was near where she served. She often speaks of the food she ate there, mainly the Romanian Ashkenazi classics such as sarma and kozunak.

While both of our grandmothers focused on Romanian food, their daughters, my mother and Dudi’s, ventured in the opposite direction. My mother married into a Sephardic family of Bulgarian cooks, while her cousin, surrounded by Moroccan Jewish neighbors, developed a passion for Sephardic cuisine and ignited that hunger in Dudi.

While both of our grandmothers focused on Romanian food, their daughters, my mother and Dudi’s, ventured in the opposite direction.

Although we didn’t grow up together, Dudi and I are shockingly similar. We had mothers who worked full time and can trace our love of kitchen work back to childhood when we preferred cooking the family meal to doing our homework. Like me, Dudi came to professional cooking relatively late in life. Four years ago, at the age of 40, he left Israel and an established career in engineering to join our cousin Marion and his wife, Angelina, in their incredible restaurant La Luna in Nosara, Costa Rica.

Similarly, at around the same age, I left my corporate job at The New York Times to pursue my own business in Israel. A few years later, my husband’s new post brought me to Uganda, where finally I was able to focus on my passion for cooking. For Dudi and me, the idea of working in the food space was a faraway dream until an unexpected turn led us to take the ultimate plunge, culminating with my opening my restaurants and now serving as a chef at the American embassy, and Dudi opening his first restaurant later this year in Costa Rica.

We regularly find ourselves making the same dish and swapping stories about kitchen life. Neither of us feels right when we are away from cooking for long, and although we love to travel, we feel happiest in the action and intensity of a kitchen. We lean toward Sephardic food, preferring chraime to gefilte fish but we love that, too. We have cookbooks on our bedside tables and read them for fun like novels. We eat mostly for the condiments and possess an infuriating struggle for perfection, playing with a recipe or a food concept until we drive ourselves and others mad.

Unsurprisingly, Dudi and I make chraime (fish in spicy tomato sauce) almost identically. I’ve merged our recipes so you can benefit from both. Dudi calls this dish “fish for lazy people” because it’s so simple to prepare. And that’s true — it’s a straightforward recipe I often make in my paella pan from Spain to add an extra Sephardic touch. Dudi likes it with bread, preferably challah, not sliced but torn straight from the loaf. I love eating chraime with plain, white rice cooked in some chicken fat and broth from chicken soup.

This Sephardic mainstay dish uses any variety of firm, white fish. In Israel, it’s usually made with Nile perch or grouper and is a must for Sephardic Jews on Rosh Hashanah and Passover. While Dudi lives on the beach in Costa Rica and is spoiled for choice, I live on the shores of Lake Victoria and am limited to using tilapia or Nile perch, whichever of the two is freshest in the market that day.

I’ve found that the flavor of this dish dramatically improves if you cook it with fish that still has its bones attached so they can impart the sauce with a more unctuous texture and flavor. Dudi makes his chraime with fillets, but you can buy yourself a whole fish and ask your fishmonger to fillet it for you keeping the head and tail to stew in the sauce along with the fillets. That way, like a perfect cousin mind meld, you too can enjoy the best of all worlds.

½ cup light olive oil
8 cloves garlic, chopped or sliced
½ large fresh sweet red pepper, chopped
1 15-ounce can chopped Italian tomatoes
or 4 very ripe red tomatoes
with their juice
2 heaping tablespoons sweet paprika
1 heaping tablespoon hot paprika
(or to taste — we like it spicy)
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1½ teaspoons ground turmeric
½ teaspoon dried red chili flakes
3 heaping tablespoons tomato paste
1½ cups boiling water
Juice of 1 lemon (about 4 tablespoons)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
to taste
1½ pounds firm white fish (fillets or
bone-in steaks)
1 bunch fresh cilantro (optional, roughly
chopped for garnish)
Lemon wedges for serving

Heat olive oil on low heat in a medium-size saucepan (a paella pan is ideal for this). Add garlic while the oil is cold and cook on low heat until fragrant but not brown. Add chopped red pepper and canned or fresh tomatoes with their juice and saute until reduced. Add the dry spices and tomato paste and cook until oil is bright red, about 1 minute. Add boiling water and lemon juice and cook partially covered until sauce has reduced and thickened and oil is beginning to pool around the sides of the pan. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Place fish into the sauce and turn up the heat to medium-low. Cover pan and cook approximately 15 minutes or until cooked through. Uncover and gently simmer on low heat to reduce the liquid produced by the fish until the sauce is thick. Add chopped cilantro, if using. Let fish rest in the pan a few minutes. Serve warm with lemon wedges and plenty of bread or rice and for mopping up the sauce.

Makes 4 servings.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

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