Chraime, fish served as a starter for Shabbat meals, is made throughout northern Africa, and this version comes from the Jewish community of Tripoli, in Libya. Tripolitan cuisine is well loved in Israel and what makes this version so distinctive is the addition of ground caraway seed to the tomato sauce in which the fish is poached.
The Mediterranean coast of Africa is rich with delicious cuisines, each with its own preferred spices, techniques, and subtle variations. Because northern Africa was once home to so many Jewish communities, in Israel the food of Morocco is an entirely different thing from Tunisian or Libyan cooking, not to speak of Egyptian food. Because the largest, well-established Jewish community in Libya was in the city of Tripoli, in Israel the cuisine is generally known as Tripolitan. I'll have to confess that among my family and friends Morocco and Tunisia happen to be better represented than Tripoli, but that won't stop me from getting to know this wonderful cuisine better, eh? Luckily for me, the Israeli food magazine HaShulchan is searchable by cuisine and has a Tripolitan section (Hebrew; scroll down on the right to select), and of course there's the wonderful Gather A Table, from whom this recipe is adapted (one glance at her about page and how can you not fall head over heels?).
This Tripolitan chraime is different from Moroccan chreime in a few ways: it uses tomato paste rather than whole tomatoes and peppers; it skips the herbs that are mandatory in its Western neighbor's version; and, of course, it's got the distinctive flavor of ground caraway. Yes, this is the same flavor note added to rye bread, and here it creates a complex, earthy tone for the luscious sauce. Tripolitan chreime is not altogether different from other regional varieties, and yet it's got a unique character. We love it, especially if I can pull off some homemade pita to have with it like in the pictures.
Making Tripolitan chraime
The method for making Tripolitan chraime is a little different from the Moroccan version: you begin by making a flavorful paste, kind of like a Thai curry dish, which then gets cooked in oil before the fish is added. The paste starts off with mincing garlic, a lot of garlic, and mashing it into a paste with salt. Then you add tomato paste, lemon juice, and the spices: hot paprika, sweet paprika, and the ground caraway. Ground caraway and/or whole caraway seeds are not the easiest to find; look for them in markets with diverse spice selections. I buy Sadaf brand (both the seeds and ground) at my local kosher market, with RCC hechsher. The seeds are generally easier to find than the ground version (McCormick and Badia are two common supermarket brands that make it that are kosher), so you'll need a spice grinder to grind them first if that's what you end up getting.
After mixing up the paste, you'll cook it for a few minutes in a generous amount of olive oil. Watch carefully at this point so it doesn't burn. Add boiling water, stir well, then place your fish in the sauce. It would be more traditional to use fish steaks or small whole fish, but I couldn't find any at the store, so I went with ordinary tilapia fillets and they turned out wonderfully.
You cook the fish for a just 20 minutes or so, covered, on a low flame, until it flakes easily. In the last five minutes, flip the fish (gently if you're using fillets) so that both sides get sauced. And that's it. Other than the bread. You must serve this with plenty of bread for mopping up the good stuff.
In conclusion, basically just check out the sauce situation:
Tripolitan Chraime with Caraway (parve)
- Mince the garlic and mix with the salt in a small bowl, forming a paste.
- To the bowl, add the spices, tomato paste, and lemon juice. Mix, forming a thick paste.
- Heat the oil in a large skillet, over medium heat. When hot, add the tomato mixture and cook, stirring, until well combined, 3-4 minutes.
- Pour in the boiling water, stirring well and cooking for a minute more, until thickened and glossy.
- Place the fish in the skillet. Cover and reduce the heat to low. Cook the fish for 20 minutes, until cooked through, turning once five minutes before the end of the cook time.