The screaming headline of the food magazine will usually declare “the best recipe in the world.” You can fill in the blank — the best fish, the best chicken, the best whatever. But how in the world does one determine the best? And is the best really the best for everyone?
I have a different approach. Whenever I think of the best of whatever I’ve eaten it usually is embedded in a story, the story of how I came to eat this particular best food. The trip on which I found the best fish I’ve ever eaten started on a rickety bus in Egypt that rumbled west from Alexandria through the desert, past El Alamein, headed to Marsa Matruh, near the Libyan border.
Marsa Matruh is a dusty coastal town and a major market for the Bedouin of the Western Desert. In October, the beautiful beaches were empty excepting some stray cows. It was here that I had samak mishwi, grilled fish, which was out of this world.
Saharan adventure to work up an appetite
Early the next day my friend Boyd Grove and I took a taxi some miles west to skin-dive at Cleopatra’s Beach, a desolate cove of rough rocks and mesa-like platforms violently washed by waves where the incestuous Ptolemaic queen allegedly swam naked for Marc Antony.
Entry and egress were dangerous as one had to time it with the crashing waves. With a burst of bravado we did it, and after three hours in the crystal-clear Mediterranean we realized we also had a three-hour walk home.
Instantly dry from the desert sun, we climbed over an imposing sand dune and trekked across the desert to reach the road that would take us back to town. We looked ridiculous in our Hawaiian shirts and baseball caps. After all, this was really the Sahara, and we were tired, thirsty and hungry.
As we began our walk, I mentioned to Boyd that I’d read in one of the guidebooks that one should be careful walking on beaches west of Marsa Matruh because the Egyptians had mined them at one time. We continued walking, and at one point wondered whether we should maintain a healthy distance from each other. We began whistling Colonel Bogey’s march at the top of our lungs, marching in lockstep and swinging our arms in British military fashion. We found this hysterical and the pickup truck of construction workers who stopped without our asking must have thought we were certifiably loony.
Griddled fish from the butcher
That evening we walked into town and stumbled upon what we thought was a restaurant. There were no tables. The proprietor, a young man in his 20s, told us that this wasn’t a restaurant, which by then I had realized. He must have taken pity on us because there were no open restaurants in town. Asked whether we would like to eat there anyway, we said yes, indicating to him with looks that we didn’t want to put him out.
He got some chairs and a table and we began to talk in broken Arabic, English and sign language tempered with the universal language of laughter. He suggested samak mishwi, grilled fish. He brought us over to the cooler, where we chose two buri, also called murgan (gray mullet), and six barbuni (red mullet), and some bread, for a total of 20 Egyptian pounds, about $6.50. As the fish cooked on the griddle, we chatted and got to know each other. His name was Khaled Abdel-Karim and he was the butcher whose shop was next door. He was not the fishmonger. His friend was the fishmonger.
Khaled’s friend Zizu, a fisherman, pulled up a chair and I asked about fishing in Marsa Matruh. Zizu had nothing encouraging to say if you wanted to be a fisherman. Zizu said there were no fish. The only seafood in their cooler besides what we ordered was a couple of wa’ar (sea bass) and a few shrimp.
As we talked, our fish cooked slowly on the griddle and Zizu went next door to the qasab sukkar shop where the sugarcane man made us sugarcane juice. He threaded the 6-foot-long ratoons of sugarcane into a huge rolling and pressing machine that squeezed out the frothy and sweet lime-green juice. These were delicious refreshments, served in cold beer mugs.
Our fish arrived. The buri had been gutted and stuffed with salt, parsley — stems and all — piquant fresh green chiles and chopped tomatoes and coated with olive oil and more parsley. Both fish were served on a bed of parsley, tomatoes and lemon halves, in a large round metal bowl with low sides. On the side was a platter of girgir (Eruca sylvestris lutea), a leafy green that tasted like a cross between watercress and arugula, very hot fresh green chiles, chopped tomatoes and coarse sea salt. We were given aysh baladi, the ubiquitous whole wheat bran flatbread of Egypt, and took pieces of fish off with our fingers and rolled it up in bread with the garnishes.
The fish was some of the freshest I have ever had. It was griddled for about 40 minutes, until the skin was blackened and crispy. The tender and moist flesh mixed with the crispy black skin mingled with the tomatoes, chile, parsley and lemon all wrapped in warm whole wheat flatbread was about as close to heaven as we could come after that day.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
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