When Shalom Saada Saar was visiting Italy back in 2006, he yearned for the food of his childhood in Benghazi, Libya.
In Rome, he met Hamos Guetta, a fixture in the city’s Libyan Jewish community of 5,000 or so, to whom he carefully recited the dishes his mother cooked at Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year celebration that begins this year on the evening of Sept. 29.
“I described for Hamos the chita” — Hebrew for “new grains,” which were scattered on the tablecloth — “to symbolize a year of plenty,” said Saar, now 74 and a professor at the University of Miami Business School in Coral Gables, Florida.
When Rosh Hashana came around that fall, Guetta, a fashion designer, raced around Rome on his scooter trying to find the grains of new wheat, red pumpkin, Swiss chard, pomegranates and dates that the professor craved.
Guetta, now 64, then set the table with the new wheat. He sautéed the Swiss chard, incorporating it into a frittata, and he turned the red pumpkin into one of several jams, this one slightly savory with garlic and cumin. He used no salt in the meal that followed, in deference to the holiday’s traditional wish for sweetness in the year to come.
And, because almost every Libyan Jew starts the Rosh Hashana meal with a spicy fish dish called aharaimi, he made that, too.
“When the professor saw what I had done,” Guetta said, “he was surprised and became very emotional.”
In the third century B.C., the first Jews arrived in what was then the Greek colony of Cyrene, and is now part of Libya. It was never a large Jewish community, Guetta said, but it stuck together. Michael Berenbaum, a professor of Jewish studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles and one of the editors of the Encyclopedia Judaica, said that in the 1940s there were about 44 synagogues in Tripoli alone; practically no Jews live in Libya today.
According to Berenbaum, more than 30,000 Jews left Libya between 1949 and 1951. Most went to Israel, and the rest went to Italy. (They were already proficient in the language, following Italy’s occupation of Libya in the first half of the 20th century.) After the Six-Day War in 1967, an additional 6,000 Libyan Jews went to Italy, with others gradually moving during the intervening years.
For Saar and Guetta, whose families left Libya, dishes like aharaimi, shakshuka and mafrum, a potato-encased flat meatball with tomato sauce, are the few remainders from their past that they still eat today. Guetta, who wanted his daughters to continue these traditions, decided to start recording videos of Libyan Italian and Israeli cooks in the kitchen, and put them up on YouTube.
But as Jewish food of the diaspora gains popularity in Israel and elsewhere — and Libyan restaurants crop up in Tel Aviv featuring these dishes — the next generation is beginning to reinterpret old recipes.
Traditionally aharaimi is made, as many of those dishes are, with tomato paste thinned with lots of water. When I suggested to Guetta, after watching one of his videos, that I use fresh tomatoes and cook them down, he was distraught. “Then it won’t be aharaimi,” he said.
Despite his concerns, I used fresh late summer tomatoes. Commercial canned tomato paste has been around only since the beginning of the 20th century; before that women made their own paste, much like a tomato purée, but cooked down more to be bottled for use throughout the year.
My result was bass bathed in a bright red spicy sauce, delicious served hot or at room temperature — yet another interpretation of a traditional dish that has become popular in Italy and is now part of the lexicon of Israeli cooking.
Libyan Aharaimi (Fish in Tomato Sauce)
Yield: 4 main course servings or 8 appetizer servings
Total time: 1 hour
2 large red bell peppers
3 pounds fresh tomatoes
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow or white onion, diced
6 to 7 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped small red chile, like cayenne, habanero or Scotch bonnet
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground caraway
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste
2 teaspoons granulated sugar (optional)
2 pounds skinless sea bass, black cod, halibut or bonito fillets, cut into 8 portions
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 lemons, quartered
Harissa paste, for serving (optional)
1. Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Roast the bell peppers on a foil-lined baking sheet, turning every 10 minutes or so, until tender and charred, 40 to 45 minutes. Transfer peppers to a paper bag, seal tightly and let steam, 5 minutes. Peel the bell peppers, then remove the stems and seeds. Slice lengthwise into 1/2-inch strips; set aside.
2. While the bell peppers roast, blanch the tomatoes: Add enough water to come two-thirds up the side of a large, lidded Dutch oven or pot and bring to a boil. Score the bottom of each tomato lightly with an X. Once the water boils, cook the tomatoes until the skin splits, 1 to 2 minutes, working in batches if necessary. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside until cool enough to handle. Using your fingers, peel the tomatoes, discarding the skin and stems. Purée the tomatoes in a food processor.
3. Rinse and dry the pot, then warm the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and chile and cook, stirring frequently, 1 to 2 minutes.
4. Pour the tomato purée into the pot, then add the cumin, caraway, cinnamon, salt and sugar, if using, and stir to combine. Simmer over medium-low, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is reduced by half, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt. (Tomato sauce can be prepared one day in advance.)
5. Slip the fish into the warm sauce in a single layer and simmer, covered, until the fish is just cooked and feels firm to the touch, 5 to 8 minutes. Remove the pot from heat and carefully spoon some of the sauce onto a serving platter. Using two spatulas, gently transfer each piece of fish to the platter; spoon sauce around the fillets or serve additional sauce on the side. Lay the sliced bell pepper over each piece of fish, then sprinkle with the cilantro and parsley and squeeze with 1 or 2 lemon wedges. Serve hot or at room temperature, with remaining lemon wedges and harissa, if using.