Bahrain ❀ Spicy Baked Fish with Sweet Muhammar Rice

As I sit writing this, our apartment is still fragrant with the memory of today’s Bahraini lunch.  The garlicky and citrussy flavours of the baked fish mingle with the rosewater, cloves and cardamom that scented the sweet rice we served with it.  Today was a bumper day, and the recipes not at all difficult to make.  Who knew that such a small and relatively unknown country held such culinary promise?

Bahrain is small and has little arable land, thus it imports a lot of its produce.  The result is a cuisine that has much in common with its Arab neighbours on the other side of the Persian Gulf.  It also has quite a strong Indian connection, however.  Samosas, grilled lamb, dates and baba ghanoush are all staples.  But this is the second island state in a row here at Where The Food Is, and – like the Bahamas before it – Bahrain loves its seafood, and fishing is a major industry.  Fish is commonly fried, stuffed and baked or stewed.  To add to all this tastiness, the Bahrainis like their seafood heavily spiced with fish masala, which can include anything and everything from turmeric to cumin to coriander.  And don’t forget the salted dried limes that are a classic flavouring in the Gulf States (I did just that, but more about that later!).

But one of the most interesting Bahraini dishes, and one I knew I had to try the moment I heard about it, is muhammar.  Now, despite what Google would have me believe, I did not cook and eat the recently-deposed Libyan leader this week.  No – muhammar is a sublime dish of sweet, buttery basmatic rice that is infused with spices, saffron and rosewater.  It could almost be a dessert – Middle Eastern rice pudding, anyone? – but it is instead eaten only with fish, the sweet rice contrasting with the spicy saltiness of the main dish.  It is undoubtedly a Bahraini classic.

I was particularly excited to make muhammar because I’ve recently been given a bottle of the finest Turkish rosewater by a very kind Couchsurfer from Istanbul.  It’s natural rather than the synthetic stuff you often find, and I’ve been itching to discover if it tastes as good as it smells.

A few tips on making today’s dish, with its somewhat obscure ingredients.  It seems the most widely-eaten and popular fish in Bahrain are grouper, sea bream and tuna, but over 200 varieties can be found in the country’s waters!  I went with Belgian trout, and very tasty it was too.  For this recipe, any white fish should work.

You might have also difficulty getting preserved limes…I wish I’d looked a little harder, or even made my own.  I settled for using preserved lemons that I’d recently made, and this worked nicely too.  The zest of regular limes should also work.

This is a pretty easy dish to make, and you should feel free to leave out, substitute or experiment based on what’s around.  Even if you have to omit a few things, I guarantee your house will smell amazing as you cook.  With all those cloves and cardamom, ours smelled almost Christmassy…just the thing for this blog’s first post of the holiday season.

What Did I Need?

For the muhammar (I used a modified version of this recipe):

  • 2 cups basmati rice, washed
  • 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 2 tablespoons rosewater
  • the contents of 3 cardamom pods
  • 6 cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1/4 cup ghee or butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • a generous pinch of salt

For the baked fish (modified from this recipe):

  • 4 smallish white fish (or fewer if fish are larger), descaled and gutted
  • 2 tbsp garam masala
  • 1 tbsp of turmeric powder
  • a tsp of salt
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper (or more if you prefer it spicier)
  • 2 cups chopped onion
  • 2 minced garlic cloves
  • 1 minced small fresh chilli (remove seeds if you can’t handle the heat!)
  • 1 tsp dried lime powder (or the zest of one small organic lime)
  • 1/2 cup fresh dill (optional)
  • a few glugs of sunflower or olive oil
  • 2 tomatoes, sliced
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped

How Did I Do It?

For the muhammar:

  1. Mix the saffron, cardamom, cloves and rosewater; leave aside to steep for an hour or two before cooking.
  2. Add rice, sugar, butter, cinnamon stick and rosewater mixture to 4 cups of boiling water.
  3. Cover and cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally, for about half an hour, or until water is absorbed and rice is cooked.
  4. Transfer rice to a large casserole dish and place in an oven preheated to 200 degrees celsius.  Cook for 15-20 minutes or until rice is dry and fluffy.

For the baked fish:

  1. Preheat the oven to 140 degrees celsius.
  2. Place fish in a baking tray.  Rub the cayenne pepper, turmeric, garam masala and half the salt onto the outsides of the fish.
  3. Mix the chopped onion, garlic, dill, bell pepper, chilli, lime zest and the remaining salt together, then stuff these into the stomach cavities of the fish.  Scatter any remaining stuffing around the fish.
  4. Drizzle with olive oil and place in oven for half an hour.
  5. Top with sliced tomatoes and place in a hotter oven (190 degrees celsius) for a further 30 minutes.
  6. Place under a hot grill for a few minutes to crisp the skin.
  7. Remove from oven and serve with muhammar.

So How Did It Taste?

Wow.  I would never have thought to pair sweet rice with fish, but it really, really worked.  The light and flaky fish, mixed with the soft and spicy vegetable stuffing, was something I’d make again even on its own merits.  I’ve never actually thought to stuff fish in this way, and once again this blog taught me a useful little trick.  But where the fish really comes into its own is mixed with the muhammar – it suddenly feels like you have two sets of tastebuds!  Now I’m torn between eating the leftover muhammar as a dessert or with another savoury meaty dish…even (whisper it softly) salted pork. 🙂

We shared this meal with some new friends.  The four of us polished it off with a bottle of dry white wine (I’d be more specific but my knowledge of wine has become even worse since we moved to Beer Paradise).  For dessert, Elle’s patented mango and coconut crumble.  So today, Joe handed over quoting duties to one of our delightful co-diners, who had this to say:

It was delicious – every mouthful just had so much going on.  The contrast between salty and sweet was the best part.

Next week I’ll be doing some country-specific Christmas baking, so stay tuned for some local twists on a few Christmas classics!

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