The elderly woman steps up to her stove, quite agile for her 80-something years and pushes aside the platter of fried fish fillets we are not quite ready for. “Now you put [in] the sour,” she says to me dipping her fingers into the plastic spice jar and sprinkling the powder into the bubbling sauce. I try and estimate about how much she is using.
“What do you use for the sour, Charlotte?” I ask, scribbling down notes. Charlotte, the matriarch of my boyfriend’s Jewish Iraqi family had graciously allowed me into her kitchen to learn some of the family’s recipes. Today she is showing me how to make salona, a sweet and sour fish dish she used to eat in Iraq.
I have been fascinated with Iraqi Jewish cuisine since I met my boyfriend with his Jewish Iraqi father and a Jewish Danish mother. (My own Midwestern Christian cuisine is pretty bland in comparison.) Try as I might, I hadn’t been able to find many Iraqi Jewish recipes published online or in cookbooks. So I was thrilled to be learning straight from the source.
Charlotte finds me a clean spoon and sprinkles a few grains of what looks like salt: “Lemon powder. Here! Taste!” My mouth puckers up and begins watering at the intense sour flavor. The sour is pleasant, but strong. I can understand why she is not using too much. “Where can I find that?”
“Not here. Israel. All good things come from Israel, you know,” she says. Charlotte was born in Baghdad. In the early 1950’s, her family was forced out of Iraq along with hundreds of thousands of other Jews and moved to Israel. But she doesn’t talk about that. Today we are cooking in Florida. And I’m trying to figure out what lemon powder is.
“It’s called sour salt, although lemon powder is probably a more accurate translation. I sometimes buy it in Walgreens or Winn-Dixie,” her son, my boyfriend’s cousin interjects. “But it is just citric acid, so you can use lemons if you can’t find it.” I nod and make another note. We are moving on now to the sweet.
“I use brown sugar. It is better,” Charlotte tells me. She is sprinkling spoonfuls of sugar into the sauce, about twice the amount of the lemon powder/sour salt. She dips the spoon into the sauce and holds it out for me. It is so simple, but the contrasting sweet and sour truly comes through.
We sit around her table as the dish simmers on the stove and she tells me about her Baghdad – the Baghdad where hundreds of thousands of Jews once lived in a thriving community. “In the summer, islands appeared in the Tigris river. Me and my friends, we took small boats to those islands where we roasted whole fish in big bonfires.” I am captivated by her stories, filled with a normal happy childhood in a place I had only seen engulfed in war on the evening news. She remembers her wedding and she giddily tells me about the first meal she made for her new husband. As a girl, she had never learned to cook, but as a newly married woman at 18, she wanted to make him salona. She didn’t know how much of the ingredients to add, so she kept putting more and more ingredients for the sweet and sour tastes into the pot. “It came out like jam!” she told me, her eyes bright from the memory. Her husband ate it anyway. “He didn’t laugh at me, which gave me the confidence to keep cooking.”
She has spent half a century working on those recipes. Lucky for me, she was willing to share them, even if they don’t always turn out perfectly. We talk too long at her table and the salona burns. Unfazed, Charlotte picks out a few good parts and hands me a plate, giving me a taste of Iraq, nearly 7,000 miles away.
Salona (Iraqi Sweet And Sour Fish)
Yield: 4-6 servings
2 pounds tilapia fillets
½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons organic canola oil
1 large white onion
1 teaspoon curry
2 teaspoons sour salt (more to taste)
5 teaspoons turbinado or brown sugar (more to taste)
1-2 medium tomatoes
sea salt and black pepper
1) Place the fish fillets in medium bowl and sprinkle liberally with salt. Let this rest for 10-15 minutes then rinse the fish thoroughly and pat dry with a paper towel.
2) Heat the oil in a large sauté pan. Put the flour on a plate or shallow bowl. Dredge the fillets in the flour mixture and tap off the excess flour.
3) Fry each fillet until golden brown and set aside.
4) Slice the onion in ¼ inch half-moons and sauté in the same pan adding more oil if needed. Cook until translucent, but before the onions begin to caramelize.
5) Add the curry, sour salt, sugar and a pinch of sea salt to the onions and mix well. Nestle the fish fillets in with the onions in the pan and add enough water so the fish is covered. Taste the sauce and adjust the sweet and sour until it is balanced.
6) Slice the tomatoes into ¼ inch rounds and layer on top of the pan. Bring the sauce to a boil then reduce the heat to a simmer.
7) Cover the pan and let simmer for 30-45 minutes or until the sauce reduces by half.
8) It can be served immediately or refrigerated overnight to allow the flavors to meld together. Serve warm over brown rice.
Mia-Rut is a chef-in-training at the Natural Gourmet Institute and a convert to Judaism. Most of what she knows about Judaism she learned while eating and cooking.