Sivine’s Samkeh Harra
I’m originally from Tripoli – or Trablous in Arabic. On the Mediterranean coast about 81 kilometres – an hour and a quarter’s drive – north of Beirut, it’s Lebanon’s second-largest city and its most northern seaport.
It’s also Lebanon’s most ancient city and used to be a popular destination for Lebanese and international tourists. Over the centuries, the port brought lots of different people who married and settled creating different communities with different cultures and Tripoli is famous for its medieval Mamluk architecture (only Cairo has more) and boasts many wonderful examples of Crusader- and Ottoman-era architecture and souks and mosques which date back nine or ten centuries.
The souq area goes back to medieval times and is regarded as the best souq in the country. Crumbling arches, old trees and a run-down water feature make the centre a gently declining oasis whilst in a labyrinth of old streets you can find everything from high quality goods to kitsch; household goods and kitchenware to books; gleaming brassware to mats, pillows and mattresses; Islamic and non-western clothing to imitation sports shoes to stalls selling sexy lingerie. Shopfronts in the gold and silver market glitter with jewellery, magically lighting up the dark little street and in the centre of the souq area is the 16th century Khan As Sabon built as army barracks but for generations now, a market for Tripoli’s famous decorative, aromatic and therapeutic soaps. My favourite was always Souq Al Attarin: a long straight alley fragrant with perfumes and spices which runs into the main food market with the best sweets, desserts, cakes and pastries in the Middle East, and of course its fish.
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of Tripoli’s sights and smells, the buzz of the souq, and the city’s equally famous seafront and harbour. The harbour, called El Mina (which literally means harbour), was a favourite place of my mother’s. In the morning it buzzed with the banter of fisherman, working seemingly tirelessly on small boats, preparing their catch for the markets and restaurateurs who arrive early to get the first and best pick. And in the afternoons, people came from all over Al Shmaal (the North) to walk along the seafront known as the corniche, enjoying the fresh sea air and picturesque scene, forgetting their troubles for a few precious hours.
I remember the humble food vendors, crammed along the 4kms of the corniche, selling everything from fresh hot salty corn, balila (broad beans) with seasoning, termos (freshly boiled lupini beans), freshly roasted peanuts, and bizer (roasted pumpkin seeds), ready to delight the daily visitors who sat for hours with friends and neighbours as if time had stopped.
Although busy and often loud, the harbour was a haven for my mother, Amina, who made the 15minute commute out of the city several times a week, always sitting close to her favourite vendor, her legs aching from the day’s work, taking in the salty air and watching the sun set. Her dream was to retire to an apartment there in El Mina, looking out to the harbour and the nine islands which surround it.
It’s no wonder Tripoli used to be such a popular travel destination but sadly, in the recent past, in my lifetime, the civil war and still now clashes between rival groups means that many governments around the world advise against travelling to Tripoli unless absolutely essential. The city itself is generally safe but although the war left most people exhausted and just wanting to get on with their lives, the divisions haven’t been resolved and are still there.
Over the years, I’ve managed to go back seven times. We had planned to go in 2020 but Covid struck so the last time now was 2015, eight years ago. In this time, Covid and the collapse of the economy have led to inflation and widespread poverty and life is difficult for all but a privileged elite. Heartbreakingly, some 70-80% of the country are thought to be starving and we have been sending money to family still there.
Both of my parents were Tripoli born and bred. Their families weren’t wealthy and they grew up in a relatively poor part of the city but they built a successful business making the sweets and pastries that Tripoli is famous for, delivering to shops across the city including the area they’d grown up in and always held in great affection.
My mother became an amazing businesswoman, supporting my father and travelling with him all over Syria, the epicentre of the spice and nut trade, at the time, sourcing only the best ingredients. A true entrepreneur, she eventually started her own business distilling rose and orange blossom water on the flat roof of their four-level apartment block, her sanctuary a small glass house typically used for laundry that she converted into a distillery. An accidental scientist, she began selling her treasured blends privately to the many sweet shops all over Lebanon.
She worked tirelessly. She wanted all of us to get a good education and my older sisters were sent to private schools abroad to study. This made her the talk of the town. But regardless of whether others thought it scandalous, she didn’t want any of us to marry early and wanted our education to be our insurance policy in life. “Your weapon is your education” she would say, “it’s the most important thing you need.”
She also hoped hard work would one day buy a small house in front of the port of El Mina to retire. But the civil war in 1975 altered everyone’s hopes, dreams and desires.
We left Tripoli in September 1976 when I was 11. I was the second youngest of 15 kids and one of my sisters and four brothers, were still living at home. The civil war had broken out and my mother was frightened that my brothers wanted to take up arms in the sectarian conflict. Against my father’s wishes, she left for Cyprus and secured emergency ‘laissez-passer’ visas to take the six of us to Australia. It wasn’t planned migration – it was an emergency. We could have applied for family reunion visas because five of my siblings had already come to Australia for work and marriage, but time was of the essence. My mother acted on her instincts, determined that she was not going to risk the lives of her six youngest children.
My mother thought we would stay in Australia perhaps for two years, until the war was over. She never imagined it would drag on for 17 years, leaving Lebanon in tatters and that she wouldn’t move back. She kept repeating ‘two years’ to my father and to us and it was what we believed. My father only came to Australia five years later, and another of my brothers eight years later, leaving three of her oldest children in Lebanon.
My first visit back wasn’t until 1992 when I was in my mid-20s with two children of my own. The war had made the rich richer, the poor poorer and the middle classes lost their homes. Our house was still there but full of shrapnel and there was a war generation of uneducated young people roaming the streets. No-one wanted to talk about the war because everyone had been involved in some way. When I go now, I don’t really fit in. I’m almost a tourist. It’s hard to talk to anyone, even my own family, about what happened.
My mother had kept us safe but lost virtually everything else: extended family, friends, work, the place she loved, her status and wearing many hats… in Australia she had to rely on her children to survive.
I remember her always being sad and until relatively late in her life, I hadn’t appreciated the difficulties she went through. My mother had a soldier on kind of attitude and as an 11-year old I couldn’t get answers to my questions. I had a wonderful relationship with my father – he was very funny and we were good friends – but mum only really shared her emotions – her happy stories and unhappy stories – later in life when we cooked together. That’s what brought us close.
She loved food, good food. And she loved cooking in bulk and used it to bring us all together, especially over a big meal at weekends. I know my passion and my daughters’ passion for doing the same was inherited from her and part of her legacy to us. She cooked Lebanese dishes and so as I grew up, all I knew was Lebanese food and that’s what I continue to cook. If we wanted good Italian, we’d go to an Italian restaurant!
I helped in the kitchen to earn the right to go out to play with friends later but as my own children were growing up, I felt it important to pass my mother’s and grandmother’s recipes down to my children. Sunday mornings were particularly special and a time we cooked together. Often my mother and my closest brother Jamal came for lunch and I would make Samkeh Harra, fish baked in a rich, silky and spicy tahini sauce in the traditional El Mina way as I had learned from my mother.
In the kitchen, I would sing the lyrics to “Salemli Aleh’’ a popular song by Fairuz playing on the stereo or cassette recorder.
From an orange 5kg netted bag of onions on the table, we would chop eight onions finely by hand. The food processor was rarely used as like my mother, I prefer to chop and combine by hand, and to cook instinctively without any measurements. Touch, feel and smell are such an intrinsic part of handling and preparing food and I learnt from my mother to respect all the ingredients and take no shortcuts.
I had every window of the house open to allow a breeze to blow through and carry the fragrance of the onions cooking slowly, releasing their intoxicating sweetness into the air, a scent that would typically linger for the coming days.
My mother would arrive with two recycled Lebanese bread bags full of washed and picked parsley. As she got older, she cooked less and less but as a grandmother, she still insisted on helping so I used to ask her to prepare the eight bunches of parsley for the tabbouleh. They were in perfect bundles, leaves collected on one end, stalks on the other, and the small yellowish elastic band from the Lebanese bread bag holding them together. You could see the indentation in the stalks from the pegs that had held them on the washing line, as that was her way of air drying them after many rounds of washing. Still today, Lebanon is divided on this issue: half will wash their parsley before chopping and half chop and then wash!
After my father died, my mother sold the family home in Sydney and fulfilled her dream of buying a house in El Mina where she lived for four years until she had a stroke and we brought her back to Sydney. My siblings and I then created a cooking roster to bring her lunch and dinner. She was pampered and never ate the same foods twice in any one day. She was also a fussy eater so I often wondered whether she liked the food or if she was just pretending to be nice! She had a finely attuned palate for well balanced and flavoursome food acquired in her younger years buying only the best spices for the family business. She never praised or made a fuss, and even when she became more fragile, she had a strong demeanour and would just nod in silence, chewing slowly, savouring each mouthful in gratitude. Thankfully she seemed to enjoy my cooking, and I could see her pleasure when I cooked for her, challenging myself to delight her with each and every dish.
Although she never said it, I think my mother particularly loved Samkeh Harra because although it’s eaten all over Lebanon, it is traditional and specific to Tripoli and reminded her of El Mina port which was full of fish and where Samkeh Harra wrapped in Lebanese bread with salad, hot chips and a whole spoon of tahini was served at street stalls along the corniche. I loved to cook it for her as a kind of consolation for losing her life there, not just what she had lost as a result of the war but her final years.
The only variation from the way my mother cooked Samke Harra is in the colour of the sauce, adding the walnuts only as a garnish in order to keep the sauce a lovely tahini colour.
The tahini sauce is traditionally made up of tahini, lemon juice, yoghurt, water, garlic, coriander, chilli and walnuts. When baked the walnuts cause the tahini to change colour to an almost purplish grey. It’s incredibly delicious but not visually appealing to fussy eaters (which my daughters were) so I leave the walnuts out of the sauce to keep it a silky beige colour with flecks of green coriander. I then brown the walnuts separately to dress the fish before serving. I love walnuts but if you don’t, doing it this way also makes them easy to remove.
I would encourage you to use a medium to large white flesh fish such as snapper or indulge in a Blue Eye Cod if you find one at your local fishmonger or the fish markets. Ask for the fish to be filleted on both sides, trimming both sides off but leaving the skin on. And ask for the head, body and tail intact in a separate bag to use to make the stock for the rice.
The tahini sauce can be prepared a few hours in advance, and again my advice would be to use the best quality and most authentic Lebanese tahini you can find. Lebanese grocers are great for this.
For an easy quick meal during the week, you can also buy fillets, bake in the tahini sauce and serve with steamed rice.
I think of Samkeh Harra as my hero dish and my daughters and I still make and serve it the way my mother did, served on a bed of Sayadiyeh (pronounced say-ah-deeyeh), a golden onion rice dish cooked in fish stock made from the fish carcass, which soaks up the tahini sauce. The side dishes, as is traditional, are always spicy potatoes (Batata Harra), tabbouleh, fried Lebanese bread and an eggplant salad which you’ll also find on this site. (hyperlink on website).
This is one of my family’s favourite spreads during Ramadan. It’s also a feast we share in the Sunday Kitchen sessions which I host in Sydney with my daughter Karima who persuaded me that my recipes and migration stories were of some significance and should be shared. There’s a limit to how well you can get to know each other over a cup of coffee but preparing and sitting down to share a special meal is different and the people who come along say our stories of migration and the role food has played in helps them understand their story families experience better.
Cooking my family’s recipes is part of my mother’s migration story – and part of mine and my daughters’. Feeding us was my mother’s love language and she wanted us to grow up eating the things we’d eaten at home. It was a way to keep doing the things we’d loved doing and a kind of therapy.
When we left Tripoli, I was a child but the call and the tug of family roots, childhood memories and place of origin are so strong that, much as I love Australia and have made my home here, the land of my parents and my roots, will always be in my heart and soul and I still I think of myself as a Trablousiyeh, a woman from Tripoli. If Lebanon were not so unstable, I might still choose to call Tripoli home.
TIP: For us, frying bread is a staple when eating fish, regardless of how the fish is cooked. Use it to scoop up the smoky eggplant dip as well as the tahini and rice. It is also a delicious way to use up any stale Lebanese bread you may have lying around and once fried Lebanese bread keeps so well in an air tight container.
This recipe and our recipe for Sayadiyeh (Golden Fish Rice) will be included in the cookbook Karima and I are writing and which will be published next year.
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Unless you are familiar with cleaning, gutting and filleting fish, ask your fishmonger to do this for you. Make sure you request the head, tail and bones provided in a separate bag and not thrown out.
Place the two large fillets, skin down, in a heavy based oven proof dish or roasting tin and rub with olive oil and a little sea salt, rubbing olive oil on the underside as well. Place the oven proof dish in the fridge until you are ready to cook the fish.
Preheat a forced fan oven to 180C.
To make the tahini sauce, place the garlic cloves and salt (½tbs or to taste) in a mixing bowl or mortar and grind with a pestle until a coarse paste forms.
Add the tahini and then add the lemon juice gradually beating it quickly to break down the tahini and stop it from being stiff – you can also add a little water here to help. Then add the yoghurt, paprika and chilli powder and combine before adding the rest of the water. Stir in the finely chopped coriander and taste, adding salt and more garlic to suit your taste. Place the tahini mixture in the fridge while you prepare your fish to cook.
Place your heavy based oven proof dish with the large fish fillets (skin down) on your stove top. Have the heat on high and allow the skin to sear. Do not flip the fillets over, just sear the bottoms, removing from the heat once the edges have started to take colour. Pour the tahini mixture over the fillets and bake at 180C in a fan forced oven for approximately 20-25 minutes. Please Note: the cooking time may vary depending on the size and thickness of the fish fillets.
Whilst the fish is cooking, fry the walnuts in the oil until they turn a golden colour and remove from the pan into a bowl to stop them from cooking further.
De-seed a pomegranate and set aside ready to garnish.
When the fish has cooked for around 20 minutes, use a large knife to poke the flesh of the fish to see if it has cooked through. It should be a golden colour on the outside. The tahini sauce should have reduced and thickened a bit.
Remove the fish from the oven and allow to stand for 5 minutes before garnishing with the pomegranate seeds and walnuts.
I like to serve with rice (ideally cooked in fish stock and garnished with nuts), tabbouleh and eggplant salad.