"I like rice. Rice is great when you're hungry and you want 2,000 of something."
Mitch Hedburg (2002)
Like so many a Middle Eastern dish, trying to pinpoint exactly where it originated from is far from straightforward. I've come across various recipes for Sayadieh (spelt various different ways) that claim to be Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian, Moroccan and Egyptian. However, this is my father's recipe so there is at least no doubt that this recipe is Egyptian.
Sayadieh is one of those fish-and-rice dishes that you find in the cuisine of many parts of the World, and they will have certainly evolved from one another over the course of history. Think Biryani from India with its scents of cloves and cardamom. Or Paella flavoured with garlic and saffron. And our very own Kedgeree (well, our very own 19th century colonial import from India) with turmeric and parsley. Sayadieh belongs to this club and characterises itself with the flavours of onion and cumin. Indeed, whereas many of the recipes I have come across have a really quite lengthy list of ingredients, this one embraces simplicity in focusing on those flavours of onion and cumin.
With the black bream season now at its beginning, I have chosen bream as the fish for this dish. I have in the past also made it with gurnard and I'm very fond of it that way. Depending what is seasonally available I would perfectly happily make this dish with grey mullet, cod (my father's choice because my mother likes cod), red mullet or John Dory. As the spicing is not overly assertive, sea bass could also be used.
Served with a light Tahina sauce (known as Tarator in Lebanon) and a simple salad, you have a complete meal that is really quite straightforward to prepare and doesn't take much time.
The crispy fried shallots for the garnish in the recipe below are my own addition and are totally optional. If you choose to include them I suggest cooking them as per in the Notes in the oil before frying the fish. That way you can continue to use the oil (though you may need to add a touch more) with the flavour that has been imparted from the caramelised onion.
Rice cooked in stock always tastes better the next day. However, fish doesn't reheat especially well. I have therefore put a suggestion in the Notes how to 'make-ahead', essentially to cook the rice in advance and then reheat it before finishing off with the cooking of the fish just prior to serving.
Ingredients (Serves 2)
350-400g fish fillets (see recipe intro), skin on and pin-boned if necessary
1½ tsp ground cumin
Salt and freshly ground black pepper 2 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped (175g chopped weight)
2 or 3 cardamom pods, cracked 125g basmati rice, washed and soaked for half an hour in several changes of cold water
215ml fish stock, hot
Crispy fried shallots, to garnish (optional, see Note)
Tahina, to serve
If including the crispy fried shallots, make these first as described in the recipe intro and in the Notes.
Cut the fish fillets into pieces around 2"x1" in size. Rub the fish pieces with ½ tsp ground cumin and some salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a deep non-stick frying pan or sauté pan and, when hot, fry the fish pieces (in batches if necessary), on the skin-side only, over a high heat for about a minute, just to crispen the skin. Remove and set aside on a plate, flesh-side down.
Lower the heat and in the same oil fry the chopped onion and the cardamom pods. For a paler finished dish cook until the onion is soft and golden or, for a darker result, cook until the onion it has started to caramelise.
Add the remaining 1 tsp ground cumin, give it a stir for a few seconds then add the rice and coat with the onion and spices. Season with salt and pepper and pour in the stock. Bring to the boil then cover with a lid and simmer very gently for 10-12 minutes until the rice is just about done (don't remove the lid during this time).
Put the fish pieces, flesh-side down on top of the rice and replace the lid. Cook for a further 2-3 minutes, or until the fish is just cooked through. Garnish with the crispy fried shallots (if using) and serve with the Tahina and a simple salad (see Notes for a suggestion).
Tahina: Follow the recipe in "Fishafels" with Tahina, but omit the cumin and build it to a thinner, pouring consistency so it can be drizzled over the dish.
Crispy fried shallots: Peel a banana shallot, cut it down the middle lengthways and finely slice each half into long thin strips. Sprinkle with salt (this helps the shallot to crisp) and then fry over a medium-high heat for a minute or two until starting to caramelise. Cook for a little longer then remove and drain on kitchen paper where they will crisp further.
Salad suggestion: Dice tomato, cucumber and onion and dress with extra virgin olive oil, lime juice, some seasoning and finely chopped mint.
Make ahead: The shallots can be made ahead and once crisp, stored in an airtight container. The Tahina can also be made ahead (indeed, it improves with time) and stored in the fridge until needed. Cook the onions and rice as per Steps 3 and 4, leave to cool and store in a cool place, or in the fridge if to be kept for longer. When ready to complete the dish, reheat the rice gently (possibly with a little water if needed) in a covered non-stick pan and meanwhile, in a frying pan, fry the fish according to Step 2. Once the rice is hot, finish as per Step 5.