Returning home to Washington, D.C. last month was wonderful for many reasons: catching up with family and friends, relaxing after a frantic work schedule, basking in American sale prices. Most importantly, it was a chance to finally learn how to make some of my family’s signature dishes – peeking over shoulders, asking questions, snapping photos and scribbling notes like a madwoman, mind you – that I’d been pining for, for years.
I’ve had an overwhelming response on Instagram to these recipes, and I’m excited to share the first of three with you today: my aunt Nuha’s famous sayadiyeh, fish and saffron-infused rice with tangy tahini sauce and golden toasted nuts.
Shortly before I left, Nuha kindly set aside an entire afternoon to teach me how to make her sayadiyeh. We invited the family over to my cousin Mona’s place (her daughter) and made a family affair of it.
Like maqloubeh, sayadiyeh is traditionally prepared by frying chunks of firm white fish and onions, then layering with rice, liquid and spices, and when cooked, inverting to create an upside-down pilaf. Nuha says she prefers to cook the fish and rice separately, then arrange in a platter, as it yields a more consistent result. She also does the extraordinary task of frying the fish with the skin on and bones in, then carefully removing them from each piece (see above – it’s an amazing effort!).
To simplify things, I’ve re-written this recipe to use de-boned, de-skinned filets of fish I purchased from our seafood market. If you prefer to do it Nuha’s way, have your fishmonger cut a whole fish into steaks. Wash them in water and lemon juice, then pat them down extremely well with paper towels to absorb any excess moisture before frying. Then, while still warm, peel off the skin and pick through all the bones.
When the fish is ready, it’s shallow fried until golden and set aside. It could be baked, but I highly recommend going all the way with this. Onions – two per cup of rice – are then fried in a few tablespoons of the fish frying oil, which adds an incredibly rich depth of flavor to the whole dish. When they too are golden, the rice is added, fried with the onions for a few minutes. Then, several cups of heady saffron water are poured over and let to simmer for 15-20 minutes, until absorbed.
A note on saffron: Nuha uses Lebanese saffron, pictured above, and lots of it. I mean, lots. She boils four heaped tablespoons of it in a small kettle (reserved, I learned, for saffron water). This variety is flavorsome, but is mostly for color. If using Spanish or Persian saffron, two big pinches should suffice, as it is much more intense in flavor.
After about 15-20 minutes of simmering, the rice should be fluffy, yellow and fragrant. A little tradition of my Teta’s was to place a clean, folded towel atop the pot when the rice was finished cooking. We did this of course, in her memory, and tended to a few things (making tea, setting the table), while it sat for a moment.
Nuha then spreads the rice into a wide serving dish and tops it with the cooked fish and a healthy few handfuls of fried (or toasted) pine nuts and slivered almonds. At the table, each person drizzles on their perferred lashing of tarator (tahini, lemon and parsley sauce), and promptly dives in.
Like most heirloom recipes, sayadiyeh requires practice to get just right. Each person’s version will taste a little different, given we all use local ingredients and cook in unique environments. I made it for the Australian Man last night and was pleasantly surprised at how it turned out, for a first solo attempt. Was it exactly like Nuha’s? No, but I’m happy to devote more time to getting there. It brought me back to our time together in the kitchen, though, which is perhaps what I was really hoping for.
- 4 lbs fresh firm, meaty white fish filets, cut into 1.5-inch squares (such as rockfish or rockling, rather than cod which is too flaky)
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 6 onions (or, two onions per cup of rice if reducing)
- 3 cups long grain rice, rinsed well (Nuha uses Uncle Ben's but any white rice will work)
- 6 1/4 cups water
- 4 heaped spoons of saffron (if using strong Spanish or Persian saffron, two big pinches)
- 1 cup pine nuts
- 1 cup slivered almonds
- 2 servings tarator (tahini) sauce
Heat a wide frying pan over medium-high heat, and fill with 1/2" of oil.
Working in batches (so as not to reduce the oil temperature), fry the fish pieces for 3 minutes on each side, until golden and cooked through. Place them on a paper-towel lined dish to to absorb excess oil and set aside. When all the fish is cooked, reserve 1/4 of the cooking oil.
Transfer the cooking oil to a large pot on medium heat. Fry the onions, stirring often, until they start to turn golden brown.
Meanwhile, bring 6 1/4 cups of water to a boil in a kettle or small saucepan. Add the saffron and reduce to a simmer 5 minutes.
Add the rice, stirring to coat with the onions and oil, and fry 2-3 minutes.
Strain the saffron water into the rice, stir, and bring back to the boil for 2-3 minutes on high.
Cover and reduce to a simmer, for 15-20 minutes or according to package instructions.
In a small saucepan, toast the pine nuts and almonds until golden brown. This can be done with or without a touch of oil. Remove from the heat immediately as they burn easily.
When the rice is cooked, spread it in a serving bowl. Layer the fried fish on top, then sprinkle generously with the toasted nuts.
Serve immediately, with plenty of tarator sauce and salad on the side.
This recipe serves 10 people with ample leftovers, but can easily be halved or scaled down to serve two. For two, use one cup of rice, two cups of water, one big pinch of saffron and about 800g / 2lb of firm white fish.
The fish in this recipe should be a firm, meaty white fish like rockling or rockfish. Cod and grouper are too flaky.