Anyone who’s read anything about Sephardic food must surely know by now that fish and chips made their way to England via the Portuguese Jews (who, by the way, were largely of Spanish descent).
Fish is an abundant staple throughout Iberia, and just as likely to be fried as not. In a place and time when it mattered, it was the Sephardim who fried their fish exclusively in olive oil, so it was indeed exotic and novel to the English, until then accustomed only to cooking with animal fats, to be introduced to this element of the Mediterranean diet – and in the sixteenth century, no less! The crisp batter is the real seducer, of course, but for me the English version is always a let-down, something they’ve not gotten the hang of despite four centuries of practice. With one exception – one! – I’ve never had fried fish in England that wasn’t limp and soggy with grease. The chips are always tepid, limp and soggy, too. Always. Even when they come straight out of the deep fryer. And ‘chip’ sounds so perky.
There’s still hope. If I haven’t turned you off fish and chips forever, believe me, when you learn how to fry properly, it’s just cause for celebration. And Hanukah’s around the corner, so it’s time to break out the frying pan.
So. “Sephardic style” fried fish might be batter-coated, breaded or floured. You can pan-fry or, if you’re so inclined, deep fry. Either method, and each coating, will render different degrees of crunch and allow more or less of the fish flavor to shine through. I’m not partial to breading, which I think overwhelms the flavor and texture of fish, and you’ve got my sentiments on batter – at least that batter, although it makes a great base for bimuelos (Sephardic doughnuts, which most people would expect me to be writing about just before Hanukah). That leaves flour and egg, or just flour.
At least in theory, all Spaniards know how to fry their fish, but they’ll tell you the best fried foods are from Andalucía. The coating of choice there is flour only – hard wheat flour that’s great for frying, or a blend of wheat and chickpea. It serves just to contain the fish for frying, to seal it against oil absorption which would mask the flavor, which is the last thing you want to do to really fresh fish. This style coating is a la andaluza – Andalusian style.
When dipped in flour and egg, it’s a la romana – Roman style – which is pretty funny because the Romans don’t use egg, either, except with breading. And every Italian-American restaurant I ever ate in called their egg-&-flour-dipped, pan-fried proteins – veal, chicken, fish – francese, “French style”, that as I recall usually includes a smooth cooked lemon sauce of some kind. Which happens to be Sephardic style.
Apart from pommes frites, frying must be the last thing that springs to my mind in the context of traditional French food, and France is only an hour’s drive from where I live. Not that that makes me an expert, just nearer to the source and it sounds impressive.
Confusing and convoluted, like so much of Sephardic history, with so much border-crossing (commerce, diplomacy, flight) and name-changing (convention, conversion, flight). Only I’m not confused at all.
In part 2 you’ll get the lowdown on fried potatoes.