Inter-eidah Meal Planning Is No Piece of Fish, uh, Cake

Gabi and Dani have been friends of my daughters for years, dating back to when Gabi and Daughter Number Two were in school together, and they’ve been over so many times that we practically consider them family. So we invited them for Shabbat lunch recently, even though Number Two lives across the seas* these days and, obviously, couldn’t join us. Admittedly, we had something of an ulterior motive. Number Two, as befitting someone who once served in an elite intelligence unit, plays it close-to-the-vest, and as concerned (subtext: nosy) parents, we were hoping that Gabi and Dani, as good friends who’re frequently in touch with her, would give us some additional insight into what she’s up to. But that was only secondary, and we were really looking forward to the meal just to have the pleasure of their company.

I should note here, since it’s the basis for much of what follows, that Gabi is of Iraqi descent, Dani is a Yemenite, and as you can tell from my typically Ashkenazi name, I’m a typical Ashkenazi — Lithuanian on one side, Ukrainian on the other. My grandparents emigrated to the US around the time of World War I; two generations later I crossed the Atlantic in the other direction; and here we are, breaking bread with fellow Jews from “exotic” locales that my ancestors could only have imagined.

So we started planning the meal. What to make, given the restriction that we’re stringent flexitarians? Well, I have this go-to “salmon in orange-mustard sauce” recipe, but I’d been making it week-in, week-out, and everyone was getting tired of it, so I had another idea: I’d make chrime, fish in a spicy tomato-pepper sauce, a traditional North African dish.

To my surprise, though, when I mentioned this to Daughter Number One, who’s temporarily living with us together with her husband, she was absolutely appalled; making traditional edot ha-mizrach food for Mizrachim would be the worst type of “ethnic pandering.” From her standpoint, it was as if, while still living in the States, I had invited over a couple of black friends for a meal, and served them chitlins and black-eyes peas, while announcing, “Look, I’ve made you your Soul Food — I got the Authentic Recipe straight from Oprah’s website! Am I the hippest, coolest white dude you ever met, or what?” I’d be insulting Gabi and Dani if I made them chrime, she claimed, and look ridiculous to boot.

I didn’t buy her argument, though, and so I decided to email Daughter Number Two, who’s not only reasonable and level-headed (she gets it from her father), but who also knows Gabi and Dani much longer, to ask her opinion. Chrime’s no problem at all, she replied. And among the points she made was this: chrime is a Moroccan/Tripolitanian dish; neither G nor D is North African; case closed.

But when I relayed this to Number One, she wasn’t mollified, not at all. Au contraire — Number Two’s point was even more the reason to prepare something else. If I were to make chrime, she claimed, I’d be showing that I was such a clueless Ashkenazi that I couldn’t even distinguish between the different edot; only an Ashkenazi who was truly obtuse would make North African soul food for an Iraqi and a Yemenite as if it were their special dish!

At this point, I decided it was time to pull parental rank, and I said wearily to Number One, “Look, I’m making chrime, but I’ll tell you what, when I bring the food to the table, instead of saying, “I made chrime,” I’ll just say, “’I made fish.’ Do you think you can live with that?” Number One grudgingly agreed.

The big day arrived, we all sat down to eat, at some point in the meal I brought the chrime to the table, and to be completely on the safe side, I just set it down and said nothing whatsover. I started to walk back to the kitchen, and as soon as I had taken a step past the fridge, like out of a bad American sitcom, I heard my wife announce, “Larry made chrime!”

All I could do was lean my elbows on the countertop next to the Sodastream, put my head in my hands, and sigh.

But for all the drama that had preceded the meal, what followed was anti-climactic. Number One, for all that she can be, shall we say, somewhat opinionated (okay, okay, she gets it from her father….) is a very good cook in her own right. Everyone had filled up on the excellent salatim and pasta dishes she and my wife had prepared, so hardly anyone even sampled the fish. But those who did remarked that it was suitably spicy, and no one asked me snarkily if I’d gotten my chrime recipe from the Grossinger’s cookbook. More importantly, a good time was had by all — and I had plenty of yummy leftover chrime to last the rest of the week.

So is chrime difficult to make? Not my version! I am, as my wife likes to phrase it, “a male of the male species,” and as such, I’m a fervid advocate of the Lazy Guy’s Approach to Cooking, the gist of which is that any recipe worth making must be adaptable so that it can be prepared in the following five easy steps:

  • place the fish / fowl / tofu / whatever in a baking pan. Check to see if the item is defrosted and — this is crucial! — that nothing in the pan is wiggling or wriggling. If all is well, proceed to the next step.
  • if the shape or size of the item is unwieldy, cut it up until it is wieldy
  • prepare a sauce
  • douse the item in the baking dish with the sauce while taking care not to splatter the walls, since this tends to annoy spouses/SO’s (trust me on this one)
  • place the baking dish in the oven, set the temperature and the timer, then go off somewhere to check Facebook. Return when the oven burps to signal that the food is ready, and then, I suggest, immediately remove the item from the oven, since we really, really want to avoid the following scenario:

Wife (poking head into the fridge on Shabbat morning): Where’s the chrime?
You: Omigod! It’s been sitting in the oven since yesterday!

The astute among you have undoubtedly grasped that this methodology basically transforms cooking from an onerous task into a sort of modified barbeque that just happens to be taking place indoors. And that’s exactly the idea! Now, why is it that most guys don’t like to cook but love to barbeque, while with many women it’s exactly the opposite? Beats me, but if you’re planning on doing a PhD in gender studies, well, now you have your thesis topic. Be sure to thank me in a footnote.

And so, without further ado, here’s my version of the chrime recipe. I was thinking of calling it “Chrime for EdotMizrach Wannabes,” but that’s lacking in cachet, and so instead I’ve decide to christen it — whoops, wrong audience! — yi’kareh sh’mo b’yisrael, it shall be called in Israel — drum roll: “Chrime à la Kiev”

Chrime à la Kiev

Ingredients:

  • a large, thick slab of filleted white fish, cut into chunks. I’ve used n’sichat ha’nilous, Nile perch, but supposedly locus (grouper), or buri (grey mullet) can be used as well (sorry, Shprintzy, but carp isn’t going to cut it here. Nor whitefish & pike.)
  • a lot of fresh garlic cut into slivers. A note on measurements: I’m a mathematician by training, and mathematics is, almost by definition, precise — but math is work, and cooking is play. So how much is ‘a lot of garlic?’ I dunno, whadda you think?
  • a large handful of fresh cousbara (cilantro) leaves. Remove as many stems as you can until it starts to get boring. Cousbara stems are kind of slimy, but on the other hand, no one’s ever died from eating one.
  • a container of matbucha and/or most of a can of shakshouka-base tomato sauce. (This is why it’s a recipe is for edot ha-mizrach wannabes, since the thought of using store-bought ingredients in making chrime would probably make your average Moroccan grandmother weep.)
  • tub of tomato paste
  • salt to taste
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 1-2 tbsp. paprika
  • 1 tbsp. cumin
  • 1 tbsp. caraway seed, preferably ground
  • 1 tsp. pilpel chouma (pepper-garlic spread) if you’re using the mild paprika or you like your food really spicy. Pereg’s is deadly, as is their matboucha. (That’s a good thing.)
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • lemon juice to taste

By now you know the drill: place the fish in a baking pan, mix up the rest of the ingredients to make a sauce, and pour the sauce over the fish. Bake at 180 C. for 20 mins., plus-minus, depending on the size and thickness of the slab.

B’teyavon!

*When I was a little kid, I was under the misimpression that the words to the traditional song were “My body lies over the ocean, my body lies over the sea …. so bring back my body to me.” I thought it was pretty ghoulish.