Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Evolutionary food

It is widely understood that what led to the brain development of our species, was a change in diet. The introduction of seafood into homo sapiens' diet was key to the evolution of modern man. It is only natural then that we all have an affinity for eating fish and shellfish. Or you'd think so.

I'm constantly surprised by how many people prefer eating fish sticks from a box bought from the supermarket rather than real, fresh fish from their local fishmonger. I'm amazed when a friend of mine says she gets grossed out by the fact that she needs to clean the fish or break up the shells of shellfish before eating or cooking them.

C'mon people. There's nothing better than seafood. I know that, sometimes, taking bones out of a red mullet when you're extremely hungry is kind of an ordeal but the taste is reward enough. Yes, it may be time-consuming to clean mussels properly but unless you've made my Greek mussel pilaf, you haven't realized what you can do with these little mollusks.

And don't let me get started with shrimps. Who is able to resist shrimps? That sweet aroma and flavor of their juicy, white-pinkish flesh is something out of this world. Those early homo sapiens knew something when they turned to the sea to feed their hunger.

Shrimp, prawns, whatever you like to call them, are extremely versatile and this dish is a shining example of that. It is an Egyptian-inspired recipe of sautéed shrimps with a tahini and garlic sauce and a sumac, cumin seed and pistachio dukkah.

I don't know how many of you are familiar with dukkah. I discovered it about two-three years ago when I had the pleasure of eating it at an Egyptian friend's house who happens to be an extraordinary cook to boot. Dukkah (also spelled dukka or duqqa) is an Egyptian nut and spice mix that is served mainly as part of an appetizer ensemble along with pita bread and olive oil. And the experience goes something like this; you take a piece of bread, you dip it in the olive oil, then in the dukkah, and then you eat it. It truly is an experience.

Apart from spices and nuts, dukkah can include also dried herbs like mint or marjoram, chilies, different kinds of pepper and salt. Typically, the nuts and spices are lightly toasted in a dry pan and then pounded in a mortar and pestle along with the rest of the ingredients to a coarse consistency. The resulting blend can be used not only as an appetizer/dip but also as a dry rub or marinade for meats, poultry or fish, and for seasoning or sprinkling over cooked seafood like in this dish.

No one can go wrong with sautéed shrimps and when a tahini and garlic sauce is introduced to the mix, you then have a magnificent marriage of sweet and pungent flavors. The final, generous sprinkling of the spicy dukkah comes to complete the picture with its earthy hints from the cumin seeds, the citrusy zing from the sumac and the nuttiness from the pistachios. Paired with a dry Muscat wine, you have yourselves a summery appetizer that is quite impressive, to say the least.

Sautéed shrimps with tahini and garlic sauce and a sumac, cumin seed and pistachio dukkah
Adapted from Food & Travel

This recipe makes one cup of dukkah but you will not need all of it for this dish. Store the rest in an airtight container, in a dry, dark, cool place for about a month and use it on chicken or other fish, or even to spice up a simple boiled egg by sprinkling some on top. Play around with it. That's what food is all about.

The tahini and garlic sauce pairs excellently with other crustaceans besides shrimp, such as lobster, crab, Mediterranean slipper lobster or even with any white fish.

Yield: 8 appetizer servings


for the dukkah
3 Tbsp shelled, unsalted pistachios
3 Tbsp cumin seeds
4 Tbsp nigella seeds
1 tsp ground sumac
1 tsp sea salt

for the sauce
50 ml tahini
100 ml cold water
1 large garlic clove, crushed
1 tsp ground cumin
45 ml (3 Tbsp) extra virgin olive oil
40 ml (2 ½ Tbsp) lemon juice, freshly squeezed
Sea salt, to taste

500 g fresh (or frozen) shrimps/prawns (I used tiger prawns), peeled and deveined
30 ml (2 Tbsp) olive oil

Garden cress, for garnishing (optional)

Flatbreads for serving

Special equipment: mortar and pestle (or spice grinder)


for the dukkah
In a large, non-stick frying pan, add the pistachios, the cumin seeds and the nigella seeds. Toast them over a medium-high heat for 1 minute, stirring often with a rubber spatula so that they don't catch, until they start to release their aromas.
Remove them from the pan and onto a plate and allow them to cool. Place them in a mortar and pestle (or spice grinder) along with the ground sumac and sea salt and grind them to a coarse consistency. The dukkah mixture should have the look of wet sand.

for the sauce
In a medium-sized bowl, add the tahini, cold water, crushed garlic clove, ground cumin and olive oil. Whisk everything together until well blended and add the lemon juice and sea salt just before adding the sauce to the shrimps.

Sautée the shrimps
If you're using frozen shrimps, make sure to thaw them first.
Rinse the shrimps under cold running water and drain them well in a colander. Place them on paper towels and pat them dry.
In the same large, non-stick frying pan that you toasted the spices, heat the olive oil over medium heat and when it starts to shimmer, add the shrimps in one layer. If your pan is not large enough, sautée the shrimps in batches.
Sautée the shrimps until they're lightly golden, for 2-3 minutes on one side and 1 minute on the other for small/medium-sized shrimps, or a couple of minutes longer you're using jumbo shrimps.
Remove them from the pan with a slotted spoon and arrange them on a platter.

Drizzle the shrimps with 3-4 Tbsp of the sauce, or more if you want, sprinkle them with 1-2 tsp of the dukkah and serve immediately. Optionally, you can garnish with garden cress leaves.
You can place a bowlful of the sauce and a bowlful of the dukkah on the table, so that your guests can help themselves with more if they wish.

Serve the dish with some freshly baked flatbread.

You can keep the tahini and garlic sauce in the fridge for a day.
For the dukkah, see recipe head notes.


  1. You almost make me love fish! I a not grossed out by cleaning or handling fish, I just don't like it all that much and after a couple of bites I'm kind of sick of it... But even then I'll take a whole roasted fish-y fish over any processed fish stick

  2. This sounds divine! I never thought of combining tahini and seafood but it makes deliciousness happen in my brain. I just recently discovered dukkah last year at an olive oil shop in Long Beach - we dipped bread into olive oil and then into the dukkah... delish! I wish I could try this in Egypt or amongst natives.

  3. Wow - this sounds great! A definite must try for our kitchen. I love all manner of seafood and fish - one of the things I miss most about living in the desert and not by the ocean. Happily, we are close to the Sea of Cortez (Mexico) and great incredible fresh shrimp and grouper!

  4. Tahini sauce (called tarator) is always served with fish in the Lebanese kitchens; fish is usually grilled whole and served with tarator, extra lemons and (my favorite) fried pita! Your shrimp looks and sounds perfect!

  5. I always learn something new here. Another beautiful dish. Thank you.

  6. Pola M — I prefer fish to meat any day and I especially love shellfish.

    Anna A. — isn't dukkah amazing? Especially with shellfish. Tahini and seafood, I never thought it would work either but it does!

    Cocoa and Lavender — I can't imagine living so far away from the sea. It would be torturous for me!

    tasteofbeirut — Thanks! Fried pita is the way we do it in Greece too.
    I've always though tarator was made with yoghurt, not tahini.

    Denise — I'm glad you like it!

  7. Boxed fish sticks-gross!

    I love this the flavor profile you have your shrimp dish against. This looks and sound delish.

  8. The recipe looks delicious. I agree, fresh fish is amazing. Not so sure about boxed fish sticks though - blek!

  9. personally i feel sorry for anyone who is grossed out at preparing fresh food from fresh ingredients because they are worried about the smell or dirt - we do not say the same thing about painting, we call that art, but the artist has surround themself by dirt and fumes to create something

    boxes, tins, packets - seriously, they belong in very small quantities in the kitchen!

  10. I could eat shellfish every day--even moreso than fish! I have never seen this recipe before, and I am bookmarking it to try this week because it looks amazing and unique--usually I'm all about shrimp with garlic and lemon, but this looks so delightful.

  11. I'm shocked to hear that people even eat frozen fish sticks - ew. This dish looks so fresh and bursting with flavor; I cannot get enough fresh seafood in my life.

  12. I am thrilled to learn about the dukkah--I can imagine the layers of flavor that it must impart---terrific on a lot of dishes, besides this stunning shrimp. thanks for the inspiration, Magda!

  13. If you happen upon my last couple of posts you will see there is no need convincing me, hehe! I never have enough recipes for shrimp and I love these Egyptian-inspired ones.