Friday, December 28, 2007

Rotten fish

So, for the longest time I've been wanting to try feseekh (فسيخ) [also transliterated as fasikh or faseekh], which is a kind of preserved fish that's traditionally eaten on Sham El Nessim (View a video of Egyptians eating feseekh for Sham el Nessim). A few weeks ago I was surprised to find out that feseekh had a "cousin" called malouha (ملوحة comes from the root ملح mlH which means salt) I was determined that I would try them both, and kept bugging my friend Samir to help me buy some (I was told by him that buying it myself from some random street vendor was not a good idea). So yesterday finally I was able to get him to take me to a local feseekh shop, where a large variety of preserved fish are sold.

We bought small sardines, large sardines, feseekh, and malouha. All told, a kilo of salted and preserved fish. The seller scaled and gutted the fish in front of us, and tried to encourage us to buy a ringa (fish that has been preserved by smoking, pretty much identical in flavor to any other smoked fish) by giving me a taste of the batarekh from the ringa. Betarekh is essentially like caviar, and is identical to the Italian bottarga (in Italy it is generally dried and then grated on pasta; I ate a plate of pasta alla bottarga when I visited Palermo with Toby in 2006). I first encountered it in Italy, so I considered batarekh as a form of bottargo. According to Wikipedia, however, the word actually comes from the Arabic, بطارخ). We declined his offer and waved aside his "have it for free!" (which I'm told by Samir is a custom which can only be responded to by a firm instance that you will in fact pay) and lugged the 1kg of preserved fish back to his shop, where we sampled some of it with bread and fresh lemon juice.

Of all of them, the sardines were the most familiar. They tasted similar to kippered sardines. The sardines are preserved in salt and are the saltiest of the preserved fish, and were less "cooked" since they were never canned. Considering they were the most "familiar" of the flavors, I actually liked them the least, which is weird because normally I like sardines.

The feseekh is very strange. It's soft, the consistency of cheese spread perhaps. It's incredibly salty, with a strong blue cheese and yeasty flavor with strong fishy undertones. The effect on your tongue is very powerful, similar to the reaction your mouth might have on first tasting marmite, although of course the flavor is completely different. The feseekh's flesh looks nothing like fish at all and is a sort of yellow color.

malouha is a completely different story. Less salty than the feseekh, it also is much firmer, closer to the texture of ordinary raw fish. Much of the flesh of the fish is a deep purple-red, similar in color to the shade of red or purple onions. It's flavor is nearly impossible to describe. The best I can come up with is that "other" flavor you taste in jello, or the chemically taste that sometimes shows up in mango, particularly near the skin. But neither of these two come really close. It's the sort of thing you just have to taste for yourself. Although the flavor of the melouh is still very strong, it is a bit easier on the tongue.

In any other circumstance, feseekh would overpower the smell of anything else in the room. But malouha has a surisingly strong aroma. With melouh and feseekh in the same bag, all I can smell is the malouha.

Today Samir called me, to make sure my stomach was still okay. As it turns out, I'm fine. So far it looks like this was indeed a safe batch of feseekh (there have been concerns in the past). I still have maybe a quarter kilo of feseekh and malouha stinking up my fridge and I'll try to finish them before my flatmate Hesham gets here.

He says he's going to have me try ringa.


Anonymous said...

I am interested to teach English and at the same time study Arabic. Can I email you to know more?

Anonymous said...

I know this comment is a bit late, but I'm having trouble finding fish in Jordan, and have stumbled upon this blog. Hopefully, you might be able to help me? You can say I'm a tourist, living in Jordan for around half a year, wanting to learn more about the culture, language, etc. Therefore I wanted to ask you where I can buy fish in Jordan? If you could recommend some places to me, at my email below:

Thank you so much for your help.

Jordan said...

I was in Egypt, not Jordan, so I can't offer any recommendations on where to buy fish. "Rotten fish" might be difficult to get, since I think it's an Egyptian specialty.

But ordinary fish...that should be easy. Just go to any market and ask around. The word for fish in Arabic is Samek.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I'm equipped with one of those self help books from English to Arabic, and somehow found a market that sells fish. I had a typo in the last comment, I meant to say Amman* not Jordan*. Anyways thank you for your help, and interesting blog! Cheers.