This post is for Kathy, who asked how to make Greek style preserved salted fish. In Spain, as in Greece, this is a classic appetizer.
Palamida is the Greek name of bonito, a small fish in the tuna family. In Sephardic kitchens (or at least in those of the Rhodesli), that’s the only name given to the salt-cured dish made from it. Reader Ino Alvo recalls the word soymas from the Salonican Jewish community. I have yet to figure out the etymology of the word – probably Ladino – though it is at least partially based in Greek. The Spanish name for the same dish is mojama, which derives from mujaffifa (or something similar), an Arabic word meaning dehydrated. Language lesson over.
Curing, or “cooking” fish in salt is an ancient and universal preservation technique, used by the Vikings as much as by the ancient Greeks and Phoenicians – both of whom had trade colonies in Iberia thousands of years before the Arabs arrived. If salting fish was commonly practiced among coastal peoples, it was the Portuguese who established Atlantic salt cod as a staple food throughout Europe beginning in the 1500′s (as an aside, the Portuguese traders by that time were mostly conversos).
Back to the fish itself. The longer you leave fish – or anything – in salt, the harder and drier it becomes and the longer it can be stored. Gravlax – cured salmon, is left only a few hours in a mix of salt and sugar and it’s good to go, remaining supple and edible without need for any further handling. Bacalao, salt cod, is sold in varying degrees of saltiness, and must be reconstituted in cold water before proceeding with a recipe, sometimes for several days. Not so, mojama. Traditionally meant to be eaten as an appetizer, palamida/mojama is simply sliced very thin, marinated in olive oil and served as is or with sliced bread and a squeeze of lemon or orange juice, if you like (yes, of course you can use it in recipes to delicious effect).
To make palamida, see first of all if you can buy a fresh palamida or bonito. If not, buy a good piece of fresh tuna. If there’s a dark section in the flesh, cut that away (or don’t let them sell it to you in the first place). Remove the skin, clean the fish well in cold running water to remove all blood, and pat it dry. Lay the fish in a glass or ceramic baking dish in a thick bed of sea salt. Cover it completely with more sea salt. Let the fish rest for three to four days, pouring off the liquid each day and adding back more salt to keep the fish well covered. Unless you’re curing a very thick piece of fish or planning on keeping it for months on end, I find weighting it unnecessary. (A large piece of tuna can be cut into smaller pieces.)
At the end of the salt curing, the fish will have become very firm. Now sufficiently preserved so as not to rot, it will continue to dry and firm up even more, and tradition calls for allowing it to air dry for a couple of weeks longer before eating. Chances are you don’t want to fill your home with the odor of drying fish, so just wipe away all the surface salt, wrap the fish and store it in a cold place – dry, of course. If you’ve made a lot, wrap small portions and freeze them.
To eat: slice very thin and reconstitute for an hour or two in olive oil. This is an instance in which the quality of your olive oil seriously matters, because you’re eating it raw. Flavor counts.