You have guests coming for supper. You want to cook something slightly unusual, but not too demanding or time-consuming. You'd like a recipe that can cater for large numbers of people easily. You're looking for a dish that contrasts well with starters and desserts. Bring out the saluna.
Think firm-fleshed white fish cooked in a mildly spiced sweet-sour tomato-based sauce. I've been able to adapt it to cater for people who are unable to eat chili; I've prepared it for 70 people when served at my brother's bar mitzvah celebration; it works as a meal's focal point, supported by rice and vegetables, or it can be used as part of a buffet spread. If there are any left-overs, they can be eaten cold, too.
This is based on a recipe to be found in Claudia Roden's Book of Jewish Food, and is a typical Shabbat dinner in Iraqi households. Today the terms 'Iraqi' and 'Jewish' do not hang together that comfortably, which is a complete contrast to the situation that existed until the 1960s. Ur, the town from which Abraham came, was in Babylonia, now Iraq. Although he left there to make his home in Canaan, the Jewish people made their way back to Babylonia in several waves of exile from Judaea between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE. It was a community that flourished, producing scholars, doctors, and merchants. By the First World War one third of the residents of Baghdad were Jewish. Jewish politicians and civil servants helped transform British Mandated Territory into an independent country in 1932. With the establishment of Israel and the rise of the Ba'ath Party, things began to change and anti-Semitism increased. The community began to move away, to Israel, to the USA, to Britain, and to Australia. One important part of their heritage that travelled with them was their food.
Ingredients, for four
Begin with the sweet-sour syrup. Place the sugar, tomato puree, and lemon juice in a small pan and set over gentle heat until the sugar dissolves.
Use a large, heavy-based pan to soften the onion and chili in a little olive oil. When the onions have turned translucent, add the tomatoes, season, taste test and allow to cook to a sauce-like consistency. That should take about ten minutes over a medium heat.
Whilst the sauce is cooking, quickly fry the fish in hot oil. Do not cook the fish right through, you just want to seal it and help it to maintain its shape. If you are using fillets, it might help to dust them with flour first.
As soon as the sauce is looking sauce-like, stir in the syrup and add the fish. It should take about ten minutes to finish cooking. This dish also reheats well, so you can prepare it in advance of your guests arriving, and heat it through whilst enjoying your starters.
To compensate for the loss of the heat in the chili-free version, I increased the contrast in flavour in the sweet-sour syrup by adding two tablespoons of redwine vinegar. When I mass-produced this for my brother's party, I made huge batches of syrup and sauce, fried off the fish, and then finished the cooking in the oven.