Sea bass with tomato salsa and tahini sauce

Sea bass with tomato salsa and tahini sauce - recipe / A kitchen in Istanbul

I never liked fish much as a child. This admission has shocked more than one new acquintance – apparently many believe Norwegians eat fish virtually every day. And even if they don’t, they surely must love it. Norwegian salmon right? Must be so cheap too, since it’s local. (It’s the only time I hear the words cheap and Norway in the same sentence. Also, I’m not sure if shipping to China for processing before returning where it came from for consumption means it can be called local anymore.)

Anyhow, I’ve long since grown up and taken more than a liking to fish and seafood more generally. Yet moving to Turkey last summer provided a new challenge: the fish sold here is quite different from the large Atlantic species I’ve been accustomed to in Norway and England. No cod. No halibut. No haddock. No trout. No crab, at least in the form I know it.

Mackerel - Beyoglu fish market near Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul / A kitchen in Istanbul
In Turkey, seafood is best purchased at fishmongers.

Instead are a range of other things: tiny anchovies, which the Turks fry and call hamsi. Mackerel. Sea bass. Sea bream. Octopus. Squid. Jumbo prawns. And a large number of fish I still haven’t properly learned the names of, most of them significantly less than a kilo a piece (Mediterranean fish rarely gets very big). But although I know much of it, I had rarely prepared any in my own kitchen before coming to Turkey.

And then there’s the heat. The most important thing about seafood is its freshness. There isn’t much you can do to salvage a non-fresh piece of fish. And to stay fresh, it needs to be kept cool. Really cool. Not quite compatible with Eastern Mediterranean summers, to put it mildly. So you better know your source well.

Mackerel - Beyoglu fish market near Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul / A kitchen in Istanbul
Fishmongers invert the gills to showcase the freshness of their fish. The more vibrant the colour, the fresher the fish.

There are many nice things to say about my neighbourhood of Balat, but the quality of the fishmongers, unfortunately, isn’t one of them. The selection is small and the places and their owners don’t exhibit the sort of trust I’m looking for when buying fish in a hot country. And I don’t buy from the guy walking around the streets with a trolley of fish with no dry ice or cooling elements in sight calling haaaamsiiii for dear life with a long tail of cats trailing him either.

So in my first year, there wasn’t much seafood being cooked in my kitchen in Istanbul. Although I’ll happily travel a distance to pursue specific ingredients which keep well and can be used multiple times, my patience is much less for highly perishable goods which can only be used for one meal. Especially when the moment of purchase starts a race against the clock to get home before your bags start smelling, well, fishy.

But as autumn arrived I decided that this year, I’ll make the most of fish season. In Turkey it started in September. Game on.

Sea bass with tomato salsa and tahini sauce - recipe / A kitchen in Istanbul

These days, you’ll therefore find I’m a regular at the Beyoğlu fish market, which is actually not a market at all but rather a long line of fishmongers and fish restaurants on the same street. It runs in a side street to Istanbul’s landmark Istiklal Caddesi, a short bus ride from my home. And their fish is always fresh.

I often choose sea bass (levrek in Turkish), a relatively slim fish with a delicate white meat and which is common to much of the Mediterranean and elsewhere. I find it is tastiest when pan fried, the skin seared until completely crispy. Unless you barbecue it, of course, but that’s for another day.

The rest of today’s meal is inspired by the beautiful produce and ingredients that surround me. The crispy skin requires a slightly sharp contrast. Turks often opt for a squeeze of lemon and some rocket leaves, but this time I go for a juicy, lemony, herby tomato salsa, with both lemon and sumac for extra depth of flavour. And to give the meal a little substance: a simple but incredibly tasty sauce of tahini, the juices of the tomatoes and a squeeze of lemon juice – a trick I learned from my Israeli friend Mor when she visited me in Norway last summer. Perfect with light food such as fish.

Of course, you may substitute any white fish of your choice for the sea bass. Serve with either of roast slices of fennel, baked or steamed potatoes or baked celeriac. Or eat just as it is, with nothing on the side – you could always serve a soup or small starter if you want the meal to be a little more substantial. Serves 3-4, depending on what else (if anything) is on offer.

Sea bass with tomato salsa and tahini sauce - recipe / A kitchen in Istanbul

Ingredients

  • 600 g cherry tomatoes, cut into 1 cm cubes
  • 1/2 red onion, finely chopped
  • 60 g tahini
  • 15 g (small bunch) coriander (thick stalks removed), finely chopped
  • 2 tsp sumac (optional)
  • 1+2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 800 g – 1 kg sea bass fillet* or fillet of other white fish of your choice*
  • olive oil, for frying the fish
  • salt and pepper

*If your filet has the skin on, make incisions around 1/2 cm apart (see pictures above). This allows the fish to cook more evenly and prevents it from curling up.

My method

  1. Mix the cherry tomatoes, red onion and 1/4 ts salt. Set aside for 20-30 minutes.
  2. Drain 60 ml of the juices from the tomatoes to another bowl and mix the juices with the tahini and 1 tbsp lemon juice. Season (if necessary).
  3. Mix the tomatoes and onion with the coriander, sumac, 2 tbsp lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil.
  4. When everything else is ready, season the sea bass (see tips below if using a different fish) and heat 2-3 tbsp olive oil in a non-stick pan on medium heat. Fry the fish, skin side down, until almost cooked through, around 2-3 minutes. Use your fingers or a utensil to keep the fish down during the first minute of cooking to help the fish cook evenly and prevent it from curling up. Flip and keep on the heat until cooked through, usually less than one minute.
  5. Serve immediately, skin side up (otherwise it will go soggy), with the tomato salsa, tahini sauce and any other sides you’re serving.

Tips

  • If using a large piece of white fish, I prefer to bast it in a little olive oil before roasting it in a 160 C oven until it flakes, anything from 5-6 to 10-12 minutes or more, depending on the size of the fillets and their temperature when going into the oven. If your fillet has the skin on, fry as per main instructions above for three minutes with skin side down, then flip and transfer to the oven (remembering to transfer the fillets to a roasting pan if your pan isn’t oven proof).
  • If you’ve bought whole sea bass and wonder how you can turn your beautiful fish into fillets, I find this video by Jamie Oliver very instructive. It’s actually not difficult at all if you’re a bit careful!

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