Samak bi tahini is a very common dish across the Levant, especially in coastal towns, where fish fillets are placed in an onion and tahini sauce and baked in the oven. It's a great way to use up leftover fish, but is equally impressive made with a whole roast fish for company.
As delicious as it is, the texture and colour are often one-dimensional, and the two-step process of first cooking the fish and then setting it in the sauce and baking it can be tedious. So on weeknights, when I am anxious to put a quick and healthy meal on the dinner table, I've taken to making this easier and somewhat deconstructed version of that classic dish.
Here I also brighten the tahini sauce in flavour and colour by adding some paprika, chilli and a hint of tomato purée, but you can forgo those for the traditional white sauce. It's wonderful on its own, next to rice or potatoes, or with a simple loaf of bread to mop up the sauce.
- 900g skin-on branzino, sea bass/bream, flounder or snapper fillets (4-8 fillets depending on fish size)
For the sauce
- 4tbs olive oil
- 2 onions, sliced into half-moons
- 240g tahini
- 120g yogurt
- 4-5tbs fresh lemon juice, to taste
- ¾tsp salt
- ½tsp paprika
- ½tsp cayenne pepper (substitute paprika for some or all for a less spicy variation)
- ½tsp tomato purée
- 4tbs olive oil
- 1tbs pine nuts, lightly toasted
- 1tbs fresh parsley, finely chopped
- Red chillies, finely diced (optional)
Pat the fish fillets dry and place in a single layer on a plate, skin-side up. Chill in the refrigerator, uncovered, as you prepare the rest of the dish or for up to three hours. This allows the skin to dry out and crisp up when pan-fried. If you are using skinless fillets, you can skip the chilling step.
Make the sauce: in a saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring regularly, until the onions have completely softened but are not yet crisp, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a bowl, combine the tahini, 180ml water, yogurt, lemon juice and salt and mix well. Add the paprika, cayenne and tomato purée and mix to combine.
When the onions are ready, pour the tahini sauce over them, stir to combine, then cook just until warmed through but not boiling. If you allow it to boil, the yogurt will curdle. Keep warm until you fry the fish. If the sauce appears too thick, you can add a tablespoon of water at a time and stir.
To finish, in a large heavy- bottomed frying pan, heat the oil until shimmering. Sprinkle the fillets with salt on both sides and place in the pan, skin-side down, pressing gently on each fillet for 15-30 seconds. Cook the fish undisturbed for 3-4 minutes, until the edge is a golden-brown colour and the fish is almost opaque on top. Using a fish spatula, gently flip each fillet and cook for another 30-60 seconds on the flesh side. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels.
Spread the tahini/onion sauce on a platter and top with the fried fish fillets. Sprinkle with toasted pine nuts, parsley, and red chillies (if using) and serve.
Photography by Dan Perez
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