Persian Fish Stew (Ghalyeh Mahi)
Persian Fish Stew is tart, a little bit spicy, and thoroughly mouth-watering. It has to simmer for a while, but goes together quite easily. Serve with plenty of rice to soak up the deliciously complex sauce. Authentic recipes for Ghalyeh Mahi call for fresh fenugreek greens, which aren’t readily available in Alaska. To capture the bitter and sweet elements of fenugreek greens, as well as their texture, I substituted 1 cup diced celery and 2 tsp. fennel seeds for 1 cup chopped fresh fenugreek greens. If you have fresh fenugreek, use that and leave out the celery and fennel. Online recipes also use water rather than fish stock as the liquid, and then thicken the broth with flour. By using fish stock, with its lovely texture and body, no additional thickener is necessary.
3 ounces tamarind paste
3 1/2 – 4 cups fish stock (see recipe below) or water, divided
3 cups diced yellow onion, 1/4” dice
1/4 cup olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
4 cups chopped fresh cilantro
1 cup finely diced celery, including leaves, 1/8” dice
1 tsp. salt
2 whole dried red chili peppers
2 tsp. fennel seeds
1 tsp. turmeric
3/4 cup roughly chopped garlic (2 heads)
1 pound halibut fillets or other boneless, skinless fish, cut into chunks
Soften tamarind paste in 1 1/2 cups heated fish stock or water. If you have a Vitamix or similar machine, blend tamarind paste and stock together to make smooth purée (edible tamarind seeds are completely broken down in a Vitamix and don’t need to be removed). If you don’t have a machine that breaks seeds down to the cellular level, dissolve tamarind paste in warm stock, then put through strainer to remove seeds (this is a little messy).
In large pot, sauté onions, lightly seasoned with salt and freshly ground black pepper, in olive oil until they soften and turn golden. Stir onions regularly, being careful not to let them burn. Add cilantro and celery, stir to coat thoroughly with oil, and cook over low heat for 5 minutes.
While onions and herbs are cooking, pound salt, chili peppers, and fennel seeds in a mortar and pestle; add turmeric and garlic, a little at a time, pounding ingredients in to make paste. (You can also do this in a blender or food processor, but the texture and flavor are better with a mortar and pestle.)
After cilantro and celery have cooked in oil for 5 minutes, add garlic and spice paste and stir to combine. Cook for 1 minute, enjoying the intoxicating aroma while you stir the pot. Stir in the tamarind-stock mixture, and then remaining 2 cups stock or water. Bring to a boil, turn down heat, and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring regularly to make sure sauce doesn’t stick to bottom of pan.
Add fish and cook for 3-5 minutes depending on size and thickness of fish pieces, being careful not to overcook. Serve with rice and a plate of fresh parsley, fresh cilantro, green onions, and thinly sliced radishes.
NOTE: Many Asian stores sell two kinds of tamarind products. One is a solid block of tamarind pulp and seeds. The other is semi-liquid concentrate. Buy the block, not the concentrate. The block tastes pleasingly tart and sour. The concentrate, while more convenient and easier to use, has a nasty chemical taste that doesn’t belong in food.