In my family, we measure a marinade by the number of times those who claim to not like the full recipe come by to taste it on its own.
Take “Sardine Singary” (صنية سمك سردين في الفرن), an Egyptian dish that attracts my father, a sneaky marinade-taster who always manages to scoop a bit of the sauce with his fingers while my mother and I aren’t looking, then hide his hands behind his back as soon as he’s finished.
In our household, the recipe is defined by that incredible marinade, and commonly referred to as “the sardines with the herby lemon, garlic, and jalapeños.” It’s a dish my mother takes extreme pleasure in making for me when I travel from New York to visit her in Connecticut. She used to say she’d make it for me every time I came home to visit, but recently she’d stopped doing that—she wanted me to miss it.
My mother learned the recipe from her mother, while growing up in the port city of Domyat, Egypt. My grandfather would go to the fisherman early in the morning and come home with an assortment depending on the day’s catch. From there, my mother and grandmother would clean and gut the fish using knives and fingers, make the marinade, and pop the sardines into the oven.
Meals were always based on whatever meat was available, and everything else—the rice, vegetables, sauces—were secondary. That’s still how meals are prepared when my parents cook today. The first thing any of us ask when we get to a dinner party or catered event is, “Fee lahma?” meaning, “Is there meat?”
The painstaking process of gutting the fish and removing their stomachs and bones could be easily bypassed in this modern day: Go to the butcher, ask for eight fresh sardines, have them cleaned and filleted. But we like to do things our way.
A couple of weekends ago, my mother decided she’d baked the fish enough times for me as a surprise treat: It was time for me to take initiative and get involved. And I agreed. My mother learned to de-scale sardines and ready them for baking at age eight—I could certainly learn at age 25.
She showed me how to hold the fish. I watched as she slit it in half, cutting from right under the mouth and following along the underbelly to access the spine, bones, stomach, and guts. “Keep an eye out for the fish buttareikh, those are the best part,” she warned. (Buttareikh بطاريخ is the Arabic word for sardine eggs—pretty gnarly in its raw form but apparently very delicious when cooked.)
I attempted to mirror her, feeling like a child again, following my mother’s orders. When I started to scrape at the scales of the fish, they flew all over my face and shirt. She laughed and showed me how to hold the fish with its head is closer to my body, so that the scales would fly away from me.
I de-scaled a few fish, removed the spine and some of the bones, and scraped away at what I assumed to be bile and dirt. This is where my squeamishness kicked in. It’s important to clean the meat thoroughly—otherwise the fish will taste bitter. But even though my mother’s process involves thorough cleaning, it doesn’t actually remove all the bones of the fish. The bones of sardines are hair-like—so thin that it’s impossible to extract them without sacrificing the meat—and you already know how we feel about meat.
After we washed the fish several times in water, we laid them out in a greased-up glass baking dish. Next came the marinade, which consists of lemon juice, finely chopped jalapeños, and garlic, salt, black pepper, a little water, cumin, and a lot of olive oil. This is my favorite part of the meal: If it were up to me, I’d drink it as cold soup. The lemon-oil sauce gets poured over the fish in the baking pan, and sometimes we’ll leave the fish out on the counter to really sit in the marinade, even overnight.
After the fish bake for 40 minutes, it’s a mess of hands, bones, chewing, grabbing a plate for the extra bones, and resuming the feast, all without a care in the world about the amount of fish sauce on our faces. See, because the fish are baked with their tiny bones still in frame, you have to work around them by sucking the meat off the bones. There’s no rule for how the eating process should go: You sort of just follow your instincts. If you feel bones, you spit them out. If you don’t spit them out, you choke, almost suffocate, recover, then keep going.
I’ve learned the recipe for this meal, though I often wonder about the day when I’ll be brave enough to attempt it on my own, in my small kitchen in New York. I dream about the smell, filling my apartment, sticking to my clothes and hair, the marinade that I now know by heart and by taste—no need for measurements. And while I am thrilled that this recipe has found its way through generations of mothers and daughters, I am still silenced by its flavor when my mother makes it, knowing that my own attempts may never rival hers.
During one particular feast a couple weekends ago, my father took one sardine to his plate, which he successfully managed to eat a quarter of before abandoning. Like I said, the hassle with the bones isn’t for everyone.
Some people are just in it for the sauce.
For the marinade:
- Fresh-squeezed lemon juice from 3 lemons (if they're large) or 5 lemons (if they're smaller)
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons black pepper
- 3 jalapeños or serranos, minced
- 2 tablespoons ground cumin
- 5 garlic cloves, minced
For the finished dish:
- 8 fresh sardines, filleted (see step 1)
- 1 bunch parsley, leaves finely chopped
- Rice, for serving (optional)