A la Bella

Daniel writes:

Dear Ashpaz Baashi,

I recently returned from vacationing in Iran to America. I wanted to know if you knew the recipe for “Ghalye Mahi.” I have had it a few times and I absolutely love it.

My own very recent first encounter with Ghalye Mahi was in Berkeley, the foody capital of America as well as a mecca of PC multiculturalism. It appeared on the table as part of a fabulous jonoobi feast concocted by my friend Bella, along with a spicy prawn curry and a decadent ranginak. As well as being one of the best cooks I know, Bella is a Very Dramatic Person, an accomplished actress with a stunning presence both on stage and off.

And, as a native Abadani with Assyrian roots and a Berkeley base, she can claim some authority in matters of jonoobi cooking and multiculturalism, of which this dish is a perfect example. With its Arabic name ('ghalye' is the Arabic for 'khoresh'), the south Indian influence of tamarind, chili, and curry, and the unmistakably Persian base of sabzi, it's a dish that blends the many currents of the Persian Gulf.

I was completely carried away by the dance of sharp and subtle flavors, not to mention fine company and conversation, so of course I begged for the recipe. But Bella is a true artist of improvisation, and though she would tell me what went into the pot, just how much of what and when were not part of the story. The recipe I've reconstructed is my best attempt at reverse engineering of the magic, and Bella is in no way to blame for what happens.

Ghalye Mahi

Slice 2 onions thinly and fry in cup oil till brown. Remove the stems from 1 bunch of parsley and chop finely. Chop 2 bunches of cilantro (no need to remove any but the coursest stems), 1 bunch of green onions, and 4 cloves of garlic. Add the chopped sabzi and garlic to the onions and continue to fry until the color turns a deep dark green. Add 1 tablespoon curry powder, 1 finely chopped jalapeno pepper, and 1 teaspoon turmeric, and fry for a minute more.

Add 3 cups water, 2 tablespoons tamarind paste, 1-2 tablespoons dried fenugreek (shanbalileh) leaves, and salt to taste. Depending on the type of tamarind paste you use, and the freshness of the fenugreek you may want to add a little more of each. Simmer the stew for at least an hour, longer if convenient. Add extra water if it becomes too thick. About 5 minutes before serving, add 1 lb. of fish cut into 2-inch pieces, and continue simmering just until the fish turns color. Serve with plain rice.

A few notes about measurements and ingredients:

How American supermarkets determine the size of a bunch of sabzi is one of those mysteries of mass marketing I'd rather not think about. For the business at hand, figure that each “bunch” is about 1/4 lb.

I've never seen fresh fenugreek (shanbalileh) outside of Iran, so I use dried. You can find this at Indian stores under the name of kasuri methi. Another Indian specialty that's very handy is Tamicon, a smooth tamarind paste that comes in jars. If you use the normal tamarind paste that looks like a hard brown brick, you will need to soak it in hot water first and remove the seeds and stringy fibers.

Any type of fish will do, but the dish is well suited to a firm white fish like cod or one that is robustly flavored, such as catfish.

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