In spicy fish stew, a blend of cultures and Jewish history

The spicy side of Jewish cooking reaches back before 1000 C.E. when Jews dominated the spice trade from Europe to China and India. Centuries later, Jews from Holland were important spice importers, and the Sephardic diaspora with its exposure to Ottoman flavors and ingredients also brought new tastes and seasonings to the Jewish palate.

I recently led a cooking class about the legacy of this spice history. Among the recipes we made was Spicy Fish Stew and Yellow Rice. The fish stew’s flavoring comes from Yemen and relies on the hot relish known as z’hug (sometimes written as skhug, z’chug or s’chug) as an ingredient. Z’hug is available in many specialty, Middle Eastern and Jewish markets and comes in red or green versions. Either will work well in the recipe. See the recipe for substitutions. Click here to see how to make your own.

The yellow rice is a comforting accompaniment to the stew. It is based on a description of the rice a friend’s Jewish mother made. Her mother came from Shanghai and her family had roots in Iraq and India.

Spicy Fish Stew

Serves 8

  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 11⁄2 cups chopped onion
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 cups red and/or green bell peppers, sliced 1⁄4-inch thin
  • 1 tsp. paprika
  • 1⁄2 tsp. salt
  • 1⁄2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1⁄4 tsp. dried ground oregano
  • 6 cups chopped kale
  • 2 cups tomato, cut into 1⁄2-inch cubes
  • 26-oz. can or box of strained or puréed tomatoes
  • 1 cup vegetable stock or water (more as needed)
  • 1-2 Tbs. z’hug or to taste (see note below)
  • 3 lbs. cod or other firm white fish, cut into 3-inch pieces
  • 1⁄4 cup minced fresh parsley
  • 1⁄4 cup fresh cilantro
  • Additional z’hug for serving

Heat oil in a large, deep pan, such as a Dutch oven, over medium-high heat. Add onion, sauté 3 minutes. Add garlic, sauté a minute. Add bell peppers, paprika, salt, black pepper and oregano. Sauté until peppers are softened. Add kale. Sauté until limp. Add tomatoes, strained tomatoes, stock and z’hug. Bring to a simmer. Add fish and return to a simmer, adding more stock if needed. Stir in parsley and cilantro.

Cover and reduce heat to keep at simmer and cook until fish is tender and no longer translucent, 5-10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature with soupy liquid. Or remove fish and continue to cook sauce down until desired consistency is reached, and spoon over fish. Serve with additional z’hug.
Note: If z’hug is unavailable, use North African harissa or other hot chili and garlic paste or salsa to taste. Brands of z’hug differ in heat so add just a tablespoon at first and taste while cooking to see if the dish needs additional spice.

Yellow Rice

Serves 8

  • 2 cups white basmati rice
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 small onion
  • 2 tsp. ground turmeric
  • 1⁄2 tsp. ground allspice
  • 1⁄2 tsp. ground coriander
  • 3 cups water

Rinse rice in several changes of water until water runs clear. Place in bowl and cover with warm tap water. Let sit for 20 minutes. Drain rice.

Heat oil in a large pot. Sauté onions until golden. Stir in turmeric, allspice and coriander. Sauté for 1 minute. Add rice and stir until coated with the spice and onion mixture. Add water, stir well and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to keep at a simmer and cook for 15 minutes. Take off the heat and let rest, covered, for 10 minutes. Fluff with fork and serve.

Faith Kramer
Faith Kramer

Faith Kramer is a Bay Area food writer and the author of “52 Shabbats: Friday Night Dinners Inspired by a Global Jewish Kitchen.” Her website is Contact her at [email protected].