Saturday, April 9, 2016

One Fish, Two Fish

One of my most vivid food memories of a previous visit to Lebanon was of a big Sunday lunch at my aunt’s house in Sidon. It was hot; we sat outdoors and snacked on fresh green almonds, dipped in coarse salt and washed down with ice-cold beer. Eventually the main course came out: beautiful whole fish, lightly floured and deep-fried, served with fried loaves of pita bread. The only condiments were wedges of lemon and a creamy tahini sauce. The fish was some of the best I had ever tasted; it had been swimming in the ocean mere hours ago, before being brought ashore to the city’s main wholesale fish market, where the day’s catch was auctioned to restaurants, markets, and a few savvy home cooks.

Sidon was an early stop in the trip, and my family was kind enough to indulge me in putting the fish market on the tourism agenda. I mean, we all have to eat, right? But it took some serious motivation to get ready for a 7am shopping trip while still severely jet-lagged.

The market is on Sidon’s main harbor, within sight of the famous Sea Castle.

A fisherman repairs his nets.
Hungry cats!

The fishermen bring in their catch from the boats docked just outside. And they keep coming all morning, from sunrise til almost noon. About every ten to twenty minutes, men would carry in crates from a different boat, a new selection of wares.

The fish were then distributed to vendors’ stations around the warehouse, where they were displayed, weighed, and auctioned off by lot.

I don't know what kind of fish this is, but that bright yellow stripe is so cool.

You can’t ask for a pound of one kind of fish and a pound of another; you bid by the lot. You keep an eye out for what looks good and fresh, and you might try to get a three-kilo bag of red mullet or that whole crate of soft-shell crabs.

Once you’ve put in the winning bid, you could take your sea loot straight to your restaurant or your house, or else take it to the stalls on the other side of the warehouse to have your fish cleaned, scaled, and gutted.

We were buying fish for lunch the next day, for 14 people. We ended up with something like 20 kilos of seafood. (Like I said, we ate heroically on this trip…) Here’s what we did with it:

Poached shrimp
Calamari sautéed with garlic, cilantro, and lemon juice.
Tiny fried fish (smelt?)
Slightly less tiny fried fish.
Grilled  mullet

Grilled mackerel
Fried red mullet, and fried bread.

Of course, you can find great seafood in restaurants, too. Like this place:

This restaurant has tables in the water. IN THE WATER. You can eat lunch with your feet in the sea,
and if you venture out for a dip between courses, you can take your beer with you.

They had a simple menu, and a display of the day’s catch at the entrance from which you could choose your fish and the method of preparation (grilled, fried, etc). Really good, fresh no-frills food, and a pretty much unbeatable location.

Grilled calamari
Octopus sautéed with garlic, cilantro, and lemon.
Listed on the menu as "Lebanese sashimi," it's exactly what it looks like.
(Though it seems to me that the truly Lebanese interpretation would be
to replace the soy and wasabi with lemon juice and olive oil!)

At another restaurant that specialized in seafood, though in a less casual setting, we found some fishy takes on the classic mezze menu.  First, a version on the traditional kibbeh; typically a football-shaped treasure of ground lamb and bulgur wheat, this one was made of fish and filled with fish, and it was exceptionally good.

Traditional kibbeh
Fish kibbeh
Another appetizer was thinly sliced salted fish roe (think of it as a Lebanese analog of Italian bottarga), topped with a sliver of raw garlic and a splash of peppery local olive oil. You have to really like strong flavors to enjoy this, but I found it delicious.

And one day I spotted this on a sushi menu. Nobody at our table ordered it, but I just might make it for myself one of these days.