Many versions of this famous Lebanese fish dish, samke harrah al-sahara, exist. Even pronunciations and the resultant transliteration vary considerably. The regional Arabic for fish is samke (singular) and samek (plural), the "a" pronounced as the "u" in "up," and the "e" as in "end." Thus spellings vary from samke, sumke, sumki to samek, samak, and sumak.
This delicious version was graciously provided by Mrs. Laudy Jammal and Mr. Jimmy Antoun of the popular AI-Sahara Lebanese restaurant in Chatswood, a Sydney suburb, so I have just as graciously used their translation.
- One 4 3/8-pound snapper or other fish suitable for baking, cleaned with head intact
- 1 Teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
- 1/2 Cup olive oil
- 4 -6 cloves garlic
- 3 Tablespoons finely chopped cilantro leaves, plus whole leaves for garnish
- 1 Cup tahini
- 1/2 Cup water
- 1/2 Cup lemon juice
- 1/4 -1/2 teaspoon ground hot chiles
- 1 Tablespoon pine nuts, for garnish
- Lemon wedges, for garnish
Remove the eyes from the fish. Slash the body diagonally in 2 places on each side. Season inside and out with salt, to taste, then cover and refrigerate for 1-2 hours.
When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and pat the fish dry.
Heat all but 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large frying pan over high heat and fry the fish for a few minutes on each side. Do not cook it through. Remove the pan from the heat, then lift the fish out and place in a baking dish.
To make the hot chile sauce, pound the garlic with the salt in a bowl, then mix in the cilantro. Tip most of the oil out of the frying pan, leaving about 2 tablespoons. Heat the oil and add the garlic mixture. Fry quickly until the mixture is crisp, but not burnt.
Remove from the heat and let cool. Place the tahini in a bowl, beat well, then gradually add the water, beating constantly. The mixture will thicken. Gradually beat in the lemon juice, then stir in the garlic mixture and chiles, to taste. Season with additional salt, to taste.
Pour the sauce over the fish, covering it completely. Bake until the fish is cooked through and the sauce is bubbling, for 30-35 minutes. Lift the fish onto a platter and spoon the sauce over the top.
Heat the remaining oil in a small sauté pan over medium heat and pan-fry the pine nuts until golden. Garnish the fish with the pine nuts and the platter with lemon wedges and cilantro. Serve hot.