Middle Eastern

The Underrated, Sustainable Fish We Should Be Raving About

August  4, 2016

The wild Atlantic porgy (a.k.a. scup) is a pet of mine—a pet because it’s a prolific and abundant fish at a time when we don’t have a lot abundant fish left.

Strangely, porgy gets a really bad rap. Yet there's no reason to disdain it, and I bet that one day, everyone will be singing its praises.

It's in the same family as the adored and widely-consumed Mediterranean gilt-head bream (otherwise known as dorade or orata), but unlike its popular cousin, it's wild and local (gilt-head bream is farm-raised, then air-freighted to North America—you just know that’s not very environmentally-friendly).

One day, everyone will be singing porgy's praises.

Porgy, which teems in our North Atlantic waters, is a meaty fish with delicate white flesh that's just as delicious raw as it is cooked. It’s also a nice small size that's perfect for cooking whole, which is really the best way to cook fish.

Everyone always seem squeamish about dealing with a whole fish, but not only does it taste better roasted on the bone, it's also incredibly easy once cooked to peel the filets off, place them on a plate, and serve. Voilà! No heads, tail, or creepy eye. It’s much easier to pull the filets off the fish after it’s been cooked than to filet a whole fish raw, which takes sharp specialized knives, practice, and skill.

I like to grill or roast whole porgy in the summer and serve them with this classic Lebanese sauce, a simple mixture of onions, walnuts, chopped cilantro, and a little chile. It’s the sort of dish that is equally tasty hot, fresh off the grill, as it is left to steep in the sauce for a few hours, then eaten at room temperature on a stifling summer night.

I learned to make this dish from my mother who learned it from a Sunni Muslim women who worked for our family when we lived in Beirut. But, when it came time to write down the recipe myself, I discovered many of the samke harra recipes I came across in my research included tahini, an ingredient my mother did not remember being in her dish. So I consulted my two favorite Lebanese culinary authorities—Kamal Mouzawak, founder of the Souk El Tayeb farmers market in Beirut, and Anissa Helou, a London- and Trapani-based Lebanese food writer—and they both avowed that tahini was a common regional modification but that the original did not include it.

A big fish in a small roasting dish. Photo by James Ransom

In the Mediterranean, where the food culture tends to be based in home-cooking practices, you find this over and over again: Food changes from village to village and from house to house and it has never been codified into "right" and "wrong" the way French food has been. You can think you have a definitive recipe, but if you start nosing around you will find ten more definitive recipes, each one different.

So find what you like and don’t be afraid to modify!

Photos by James Ransom

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7 Comments

Heidi L. March 30, 2017
Half a century ago, my grandfather fished every day from his clinker-built row boat. He was hoping for striped bass but we were just as happy with his much more common catch: sweet and delicious porgies.
 
Tiago August 14, 2016
From the other side of the ocean:<br />...but...i don't get it...that's a "dourada", or at least a "sargo", why would it have a bad rap? (wen't checking for the species in the wikipedia). Yap. Now i'm sure it's a "dourada", and it's one of the most enjoyed, whole grilled, plain summer fishes round here. Geography does turn things around! Love from Portugal!
 
Greenstuff August 14, 2016
My experience is that a lot of Americans are reluctant to eat bone-in fish and even more are uncomfortable cooking them. There are some exceptions--there's a small flatfish here in California, the sand dab, which is sold without head or fins but not filleted. It's a local favorite. But mostly, Americans go for fillets. Great topic, I hope you get some more comments.
 
zora August 5, 2016
What would you suggest as an alternative to walnuts--almonds? hazelnuts? I'm allergic to walnuts.
 
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Sara J. August 5, 2016
when I researched this I saw some versions adding pine nuts but almonds might be a great substitution
 
Greenstuff August 4, 2016
This is a wonderful article! It brought back a lot of memories for me, not of a rich Lebanese heritage but of scup fishing all through grad school. We were all studying marine sciences, so we could get bait from the supply department, and we could fish off the deep water dock, where the research vessels berthed. The fishing was fun, and our dinners fit a grad school budget.<br /><br />One thing to note if you're buying trawl-caught porgy. Monterey Bay's Seafood Watch ranks them as a "good alternative" rather than a "best choice." That's because there are other fish in those catches, and some of them are overfished species.
 
inpatskitchen August 4, 2016
I love Porgy marinated in lemon, olive oil, oregano and garlic and then grilled whole. The only problem is they're not readily available in the Detroit area but I grab them up when I find them!