Walking down my normal route one day, my eyes befell a small obscure shop. Assuming it’s a normal grocery store, I crossed it and went about my business. On my way back, I realized I had some grocery items left on my to-do list, hence decided to step into this tiny hole in the wall rather than trek all the way back to the supermarket. What was inside was beyond my wildest imagination. I had been looking all over Kuala Lumpur for authentic Middle-Eastern ingredients to no avail. Little did I realize, they were always just a stone’s throw away from my place. My eyes glistened at the sight of four racks filled with culinary jewels. I felt like a child inside a candy store. Bottles of canned pickles, olive oils, pomegranate syrups, baklavas, chickpeas, olives, tahinas, laban, Lebanese spinach, breads and all sorts of fresh herbs were on display. Without exaggeration, I spent at least half an hour in that small shop, examining each item on the shelves. With my hands full with grocery bags, I asked the Lebanese owner to keep them aside for me whilst I enjoyed my time at his shop. Even though I knew the shop was just around the corner, I could not help but be greedy, till the point that I realized I could not carry so much weight all alone. Hence, I picked up a big bag of fresh za’atar, some chickpeas, tahina, pickles and pita bread. What had I planned to do with them? Absolutely no idea.
I scanned by freezer, as soon as I got home, for any ingredients I could use with my new purchase. The only thing there were some fish fillets. Normally, I had eaten za-atar only with either bread, cheese or meat, never with fish. But I was so eager to use it that I just gave it a try. Most people ask me what exactly za’atar is. It is a delicious and earthy spice blend, mostly found and eaten in the Middle-East ever since medieval times. The base of most za’atar found in the Levant is the same, however each region does have its own variations as well. In essence za’atar is a blend of dried thyme, sesame seeds, sumac, salt and majoram. It is delicious just simply eaten with toasted pita bread and some olive oil, however, it was the first time I was ever using it on fish.
- 500g fish fillets (any white fish)
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1/2 cup gram flour
- 1/4 cup cornflour
- 3/4 cup za’atar
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp red chilli powder
- Cooking oil
- In a large dish, mix together the flour, gram flour, corn flour, za’atar and red chili powder
- Separately, beat the egg in another bowl
- Slice the fillets horizontally so that they are about 1/2 inch in thickness
- Heat oil in a frying pan till it begins to sizzle
- One by one dip the fillet in the egg mixture, shake to remove the excess egg and then place it into the pan with the flour mixture
- Shake the dish to make sure the sides are covered in the za’atar mixture and the flip it around to generously cover the bottom of the fillet
- Shallow fry in the sauce-pan for about 2-3 minutes on each side or till it turns golden brown
- Repeat with the remaining fillets
- Place the on a kitchen towel to soak up the excess oil
- Serve hot
Biting into the piping hot fillet, I was transported to a cafe on the sidewalks of Beirut. The flavors that enveloped the moist fish were enhanced by the presence of za’atar and gram flour. The addition of gram flour was also an experiment I had tried earlier with a breaded fish fillet, it adds more heat and flavor rather than just plain flour. And the addition of red chili powder adds that slight kick to the dish. Since za’atar already contains salt, there is no need to put more in the batter. The crispiness is further enhanced by the presence of sesame seeds. I served it with garlic potatoes and green beans with a dollop of mint chutney mixed with yoghurt. Although, it was pretty filling and flavorsome on its own. A welcome addition to my list of favorite experiments in the kitchen.