It’s a story that has been passed down from one generation to the next. On Monday evening, Jewish families around the world will sit down to the first seder of this year’s Passover holiday to recount the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Bound by the strict dietary laws that dictate what should and should not be consumed during Passover, Ashkenazi and Sephardic families alike will break matzah over their symbolic seder meals in observance of these traditions.
“King Solomon’s Table” is a new cookbook by James Beard Award-winning author Joan Nathan that traces the Jewish diaspora’s adaptation of regional cooking styles from around the world. In 1948, the establishment of Israel as an independent state saw a huge influx of Jewish immigrants fleeing religious persecution that included Jewish Libyans. They brought dishes like aharaimi, a spicy fish tagine that combines fragrant North African spices such as cumin and caraway with pilpel tsuma, a potent Libyan seasoning mix of garlic and red peppers. Fresh Scotch bonnet peppers from Jamaica were also added to give the stew an unexpected kick. Nathan explains that the fiery Caribbean chiles used in this dish made their way to Libyan shores by way of early European and Jewish merchants returning from their explorations of the New World.
Some say the name aharaimi is derived from the phrase “harr ya’mmi,” which means “Mom, it’s hot!” But don’t worry — you can always temper the heat of your aharaimi by reducing the amount of Scotch bonnet peppers you use. Serve it with rice or a fresh salad, as it’s enjoyed in Sephardic households throughout the Maghreb during the Passover seder, or to mark the first night of the Sabbath.
Israeli and Middle Eastern markets should carry pilpel tsuma, or you can also find it online through the Israeli-Libyan spice company Pereg Gourmet.
Yield: Makes 4 servings as a main course, or 8 servings as a starter
⅓ cup (80 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, diced
7 to 8 cloves garlic, diced
3 heaping tbsps tomato paste
1 tbsp small hot red pepper like habanero, Scotch bonnet or cayenne, diced
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground caraway
1 tsp sea salt
2 lbs (907 g) arctic char, grouper, tuna, whiting, yellowtail or bonito, cut into 8 pieces
1 roasted red pepper, sliced into lengths
2 tbsps fresh cilantro or parsley, minced?
Juice of 1 lemon
Pilpel tsuma, to taste (optional)
Harissa, to taste (optional)
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a heavy-bottomed skillet with a lid. Sauté the onion until translucent and golden, then add the garlic, tomato paste and hot pepper. Cook for about 1 minute, stirring to prevent the ingredients from turning brown.
Next, add 1½ cups of water to the mixture and stir until the tomato paste dissolves. Then add the cumin, caraway and salt. Simmer for several minutes until the sauce becomes very thick. Season to taste and add a little pilpel tsuma or harissa if not spicy enough.
Gently add the fish fillets to the sauce and spoon the liquid over them, adding a little more water to dilute the sauce, if necessary. Cover the skillet with the lid and simmer slowly until the fish is just cooked through. This should take no more than 12 minutes. (If you prefer, you can transfer the sauce to a baking dish and place the fish over the sauce, skin-side up, and bake in a 450ºF oven for 10 minutes. To finish, broil the fish for an additional 2 minutes.)
To serve: Using two spatulas, gently transfer each fillet of fish, along with the sauce to a large serving platter. Arrange the red pepper slices over the fish and sprinkle with cilantro or parsley. Squeeze lemon juice over the fillets and serve either hot or at room temperature.