Although this is super simple to cook, the flavors of this chili and tahini fish are stylishly subtle and strikingly elegant. The fish is baked hot and fast in a creamy tahini sauce featuring bird’s eye chilies, onion, garlic, and lemon juice. The couscous is even easier and just as delicious.
There’s a slightly exotic panache here that emphasizes the glorious delight of good sea fish. I used fillets of hake, but a similar, non-oily white fish like, say, haddock or Alaskan pollack would also be grand.
Cooked quickly, the fish retains all the delicacy of its natural textures. It stays firm enough to keep the flesh in glistening, pale flakes but is tender enough to cut with a fork.
The texture alone is appealing because it creates an immediate, visual sense of minimalist sophistication. That alluring sense is reinforced by the clean, ocean-spray flavors of the fish, which are highlighted by its spicy, citrusy marinade of cumin and lemon zest.
And then there’s the tahini sauce in which the fish is very briskly baked. All at the same time, this sauce is deeply mellow and brightly intense. On the one hand, it’s gloriously nutty, creamy, and garlicky. On the other, there’s the enlivening tang of lemon juice, and the instant flash of fruity heat from thinly sliced, green Thai bird’s eye chilies.
The wonders of tahini sauce
In their much-praised Palestinian cookbook, Falastin (affiliate link), Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley describe tahini as being a paste made from ground sesame seeds and nothing else. I first became aware of tahini during London’s ‘hummus boom’ of the early 1980s, when hip urbanites were mixing it with smoothly mashed can chickpeas, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and cayenne pepper. And adding a little brine from the chickpeas’ can make it ultra-hip.
Happily, the world turns, and I have slowly learned that tahini’s versatility extends way beyond being the basis of what was once considered to be a trendy, bohemian dip that was piled onto almost equally exotic triangles of warm pita bread.
As it says in Falastin, roasted vegetables, fish, and meat all love a tahini sauce. Which is great because it’s an easily made combo of tahini paste, lemon juice, garlic, salt, and perhaps a little water. In that guise, it’s often served as a condiment, but in our recipe, it’s used as the chili-spiked, cook-in sauce for our divine fish.
For the fish, speed is the key: marinade quickly, flash-fry, bake fast
Now, I know the term marinade might be associated with fairly long periods of time. Not so here. The fish sits for just five minutes in a coating of lemon juice, lemon zest, cumin, salt, and black pepper.
The coated fillets then get dredged in chickpea flour before being flash-fried for a couple of minutes in olive oil. That’s long enough for them to pick up a little golden color and to warm through, so they’re ready to be sauced and go straight into a hot oven to bake.
And this is a very fast bake. Six minutes or so will finish cooking the fillets and lightly brown a few spots on the surface of the bubbling sauce. Garnish the dish with some roughly chopped parsley and a sprinkle of sumac, and you’ll have added the finishing touches to its flavors.
The deliciously simple date and almond couscous
This is the perfect partner for the gentle flavors of the fish and its creamily rich, brightly hot sauce. To keep things seriously leisurely, I used the widely-available sort of durum wheat couscous that only needs to steep in boiling water for a few minutes with a little ground cardamom before being given a quick stir with a fork. The cardamom is lovely here, adding its multiple, lingering flavors of menthol-mint, a herby bitterness, and a touch of zesty citrus.
With its faintly wheaten, earthy flavors, couscous tastes a lot like good pasta, and, like pasta, it carries other flavors and textures fabulously well – in this case, dates and almonds.
Roughly chopped flaked almonds introduce a satisfying crunch, and their flavor adds another dimension to the pronounced nutty tastes of the tahini sauce. Slices of fresh dates bring in entirely different contrasts with their soft, amber-brown flesh and their honeyed, fruity, caramel sweetness.
Once the almonds and dates are stirred into still-warm couscous, a generous squeeze of lemon juice and a little salt shines up the flavors and makes them glow.
A celebration of simplicity
I’m hoping that the fish and the couscous will surprise and delight you as much as they did me. The essence of that surprised delight lies in the scant simplicity of the ingredients, how they are cooked, and how they are so knowingly combined.
There’s a calm, uncomplicated, and deeply satisfying culinary wisdom at work here, especially with the fish, that might prompt you to marvel at why you haven’t been cooking like this for years.
That wonderment may well spring from the fact that Palestinian cuisine is something of a hidden gem in the global treasure chest of food. One of the giants among renowned Middle Eastern food and cookery writers, Yotam Ottolenghi, had this to say about it in 2020: “I love Palestinian food. I probably love it more than any other cuisine.”
With praise like that, the gem won’t stay hidden for much longer.
Like this recipe? You’ll love these too:
- Spicy Fish Cakes With Salsa And Garlicky Buttered Zucchini: So many flavors on the plate, and they all work in concert so well.
- Thai Seafood Curry: The curry is deliciously hot, sweet, and sour.
- Grilled Old Bay Salmon: Salmon’s meatiness holds up well with the strong flavors of the Maryland seasoning blend.
Chili And Tahini Fish With Almond And Date Couscous
For the fish and its marinade
- 2 pounds skin-on hake fillets That weight should give you one handsome fillet per person. I like skin-on for the extra flavor it produces when flash-fried, but it’s not essential. I used frozen hake because, like most white fish, it freezes really well. Once defrosted, I let the fillets ‘drain’ for a few minutes on kitchen towel to remove their excess water.
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground sea salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 heaped tablespoons chickpea flour For dredging the marinated fillets before they’re flash-fried. All-purpose flour will be fine, but the chickpea variety adds extra nuttiness
For the tahini sauce
- 3 fresh green Thai bird’s eye chilies thinly sliced, seeds and all. The ones I used were about 2 inches long.
- 6 ounces tahini paste
- 2 yellow onions medium-sized, peeled, halved, and cut into ¼-inch slices
- 4 cloves garlic peeled and finely grated
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon ground sea salt
- ½ cup warm water
- 4 tablespoons olive oil The oil is first used to gently fry the onions and then to flash-fry the fish.
For the date and almond couscous
- 1 ½ cups instant couscous
- 1 ½ cups boiling water
- 1 teaspoon ground green cardamom often sold as cardamom powder
- 10 dates pitted and cut into ¼-inch slices
- ½ cup flaked almonds roughly chopped
For garnishing the fish
- ½ ounce fresh flat-leaf parsley roughly chopped, stalks and all
- 1 heaped teaspoon sumac
For garnishing the couscous
- ½ ounce fresh cilantro roughly chopped, stalks and all
- Wedges of fresh lemon to squeeze over the couscous – a quarter of a medium size lemon per person
Making the tahini sauce
- In comparison to everything else, the onions for the tahini sauce take the longest to cook, so that’s where we’ll start. Add the olive oil to a large skillet (a 12-inch, heavy, cast-iron skillet is just ideal) and set it on medium heat. Let the oiled skillet heat for 1 minute, then add the onions and salt. Give the skillet a good stir so that the onions get a coating of oil, and then drop the heat to low.
- You now want the onions to cook very slowly for about 10 minutes, until they soften considerably and turn a very pale golden color as they absorb some of the oil. Give them a few watchful stirs while they cook to avoid any browning at all.
- Use a slotted spoon to turn the onions into a mixing bowl that’s easily large enough to hold the rest of the sauce’s ingredients. Take some care to leave as much oil as you can in the skillet – ideally about 3 tablespoons – because that’s where the fish fillets will be heading for their flash-frying.
- Now add the tahini paste to the onions, together with the bird’s eye chilies, lemon juice, water, and salt. Stir well. That’s it. Your cook-in tahini sauce is ready. Time now to give the fish its quick marinade.
Marinading the fish, and prepping it for flash-frying
- Place a large baking dish in your oven and turn it to 400F / 200C. Bear in mind that your baking dish should be big enough to hold all the fish fillets in a single layer with a covering of the tahini sauce all over them. It’s also important that the dish and oven have reached that 400F / 200C mark by the time you start flash-frying the fish.
- To make the marinade, in a small bowl, thoroughly stir together the lemon juice, lemon zest, cumin, salt, and pepper.
- Set your fillets of fish on a large plate and pour over the marinade. Use your fingers to gently give the fillets a complete coating of the marinade. Set the fillets aside for 5 minutes – and no more than 5 minutes – to let them pick up the marinade’s flavors.
- During those 5 minutes, you’re aiming to do two things: finish heating your oven and dredge the fillets in the chickpea flour, so they’re ready to be flash fried.
- To dredge the fish, spread the chickpea flour right across the surface of a large plate. Now lightly press both sides of each marinated fillet into the flour. Once each fillet has a light coating of the flour, you’re ready to flash-fry them in the big, oily skillet where you cooked the sauce’s onion.
Flash-frying the fish
- Set your oily skillet on a high heat. As soon as the oil starts to shimmer, add the flour-dredged fillets skin-side down and drop the heat to medium-high. Let the fillets sizzle away on that medium-high heat for 90 seconds. Use a wide spatula or fish slice to turn them so they can fry for another 90 seconds. Good. Time now to sauce the fillets and bake them.
Baking the fish in its sauce and making the couscous
- As soon as the fillets are fried, remove the hot baking dish from your 400F / 200C oven, and arrange the still-hot, oily fillets, skin-side down, in a single layer in the dish.
- Quickly as you can, pour the tahini sauce over the fillets, so they’re completely covered by the sauce, and return the dish to the oven.
- Let the sauced fish bake for about 6 minutes, until you see that the sauce is starting to bubble right across the dish and is just starting to pick up some spots of darkish golden color. Done and ready to serve.
- Meanwhile, as the fish is rapidly baking, you’ll have enough time to make the couscous.
- So, add the couscous, ground cardamom, dates, and almonds to a pretty serving bowl that’s big enough to hold three times the volume of the dry couscous.
- Pour in the boiling water and let the bowl sit for 3 minutes, so the water is absorbed by the couscous. Now use a fork to give the bowl a thorough stir so that everything is fairly evenly combined. You’ll probably find the sliced dates tend to stick together a little, so take a little effort with your stirring to get them roughly separated. Done, and ready to serve as soon as your fish comes out of the oven.
Serving the fish and the couscous
- To add the finishing touches, garnish your baked fish with a sprinkling of sumac and parsley.
- For the couscous, a little cilantro scattered over the top or arranged around the edges of the serving bowl looks lovely and adds a fresh intensity to the couscous. And a generous squeeze of lemon juice makes the sunshine flavors even brighter.