Jimli and Munashasha: Fish recipes of Islamic Andalus
There is a peculiar notion that Islamic cuisine is virtually bereft of fish dishes, and is basically meat delicacies. The 14th-century cookbook Kitab al tabikh fi-l-Maghrib wa-l-Andalus fi asr al-Muwahhidin, li-mu’allif majhul or, in English, The Book of Cooking in Maghreb and Andalus in the era of Almohads, lays this false notion to rest for good. It has a whole chapter on fish, with recipes of 16 fish dishes. And actually goes on to comment, “From the flesh of fish is made all that is made with meat or fowl.” This throws up enormous possibilities of experimenting with fish, using recipes given for meat and chicken, hundreds of them.
As we have seen in my previous columns that Kitab al-Tabikh is high on health. Hence we find right at the beginning the chefs are warned as following, “…fish, if fried and then put in a copper container, or prepared in one and left there until they are fried, are spoiled, because these foods take the force and flavor of the copper the moment that the fish, milk, and any such food left overnight uncovered, is disturbed.”
And here are some general advice on cooking fish, “You should know that all the classes of fish, above all those of large body, need to be boiled lightly in boiling water, after scaling them and cutting them in pieces; then clean them, after taking them out of the boiling water, and let the water drain off; then cook them well in the tajine or other utensil.”
That said, it’s time to savor some of the authentic 12th and 13th-century fish dishes popular in the Almohad Caliphate that ruled over the Iberian Peninsula in the middle ages. Here are two delicacies I have found easy to prepare. One is a Jimli and another is Munashasha. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t mention what these two words actually mean. Thankfully etymological ignorance doesn’t interfere with the taste of food. So, here goes the recipes: one a baked fish, and another fried:
Take a large fish (any fish would do, but ideally those with fewer bones, such as barramundi, known in the Indian subcontinent as Bhetki or Beckty are best suited for this dish.)
Scale it well and keep overnight in fine salt.
Next, wash it clean of salt, and boil the whole fish very lightly. (Take care, not to over boil)
Lay the fish in a tajine (a deep flat bottom earthenware pot in which cooking can be done. In modern times any similar pan would do.) and pour on two spoons of vinegar, one spoon of murri naqi (this sauce has long gone out of use, because of health reasons, in modern times soy sauce has to be used) and three spoons of any white oil (preferably olive oil). Also, put in 15 Gm. Of black pepper, 2 Gm of saffron, 10 Gm of cumin paste, and a little mastic. And knead all together to make a fish-dough. Make sure there are no bones. Make balls of the dough.
Put in the oven and leave until all sides are evenly brown. You have to turn and blast the balls as required.
The dish is ready to serve. Serve with any sauce or chutney.
Take any fish of your choice. Scale and clean it have on hand, scale and clean, and if large, cut up.
Boil in water with salt, then wash and put on a platter and remove the bones.
Take its deboned flesh, knead it smooth. Add some wheat flour or cornflour. This is required for binding. Add 20 Gm of black pepper, 15 Gm of coriander paste, and a little bit of cinnamon. Knead well to mix all ingredients together.
Give the dough the shape of a medium fish, flattening it with your palms. And sprinkle a little flour over it.
In a frying pan put in any white oil and let it be heated well. Fry the fish-shaped flesh well turning it carefully over and over again. Keep it hot.
In another pan make a sauce by combining and boiling together vinegar, any white oil, garlic paste, and cumin paste. When the sauce starts releasing flavor take it off heat.
Put the fried fish on a serving platter and pour the sauce evenly over it and serve your authentic Munashsha.
(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)