"It was traditionally made from the smallest fish caught by fishermen, along with olive oil, onions, and saffron."
The Essential Mediterranean Cookbook
Here we go again. Arguments over tradition that is. And this time we are even sort of arguing over the name, because having now checked out the net and my cookbooks, I cannot decide whether those three names refer to the same thing or are three separate things. To my mind they are all fish stewed in a broth that includes vegetables.
It's very hot again and so I thought to make a dish I make every now and then - quite rarely really, Palamaitha plaki, which is a Greek fish stew. It's one of those very basic recipes that can be added to or subtracted from in lots of ways. Home cooking, raid the fridge cooking, cucina povera, to use a trendy term, although in this instance it's what the fishermen cooked in Greece from what they had whilst out fishing. It's pretty quick to make on the top of the stove, so no oven pumping out heat and heat from the cooktop for a short time only.
According to Claudia Roden in her Mediterranean Cookery:
"It is usual for fishermen out at sea to bring supplies of onions, potatoes, tomatoes, lemons and olive oil on board and to cook them up in a large pot. They throw in the smaller fish caught in their nets and make a substantial meal of the soup with bread."
The pot they used was called a kakavi - hence the name Kakavia and is the kind of vessel shown here, which was suspended on a tripod over a fire. Which also actually implies to me they did it on the beach and not on the actual boat. And I see she calls it a soup.
My recipe is the Palamitha plaki one and it comes from a little paperback I have called Greek Cooking, by Robin Howe. It's old, but I have cooked a few things from it. To tell the truth I'm not a massive fan of Greek cooking. No that's not quite right. I always have to be persuaded a bit to eat Greek, thinking it somewhat plain and boring, but every time I eat something Greek I am delighted. Lemony - I love lemon, simple but somehow very tasty and tangy. Like the best of Robert Carrier really. Anyway Palamitha is an actual fish, so somewhat irrelevant. Truth to tell I'm not entirely sure what fish I shall be using. It was in the freezer with no label. All I can tell you is that it is a white fish, and almost the only thing that all the chefs I consulted on for this post agreed that it has to be white fish - not salmon or other oily fish. Plaki, according to my book is:
"an all-embracing term, and means any fish which is baked or braised with vegetables." Robin Howe
All embracing - too right, because if you feed in 'plaki' to Google you mostly, but not exclusively, get baked fish recipes. Whole fish at that. My recipe though is for a stew. You sauté some onions, cover them with boiling water, add garlic and your vegetables - celery, potatoes, carrots tomatoes - all sliced in my recipe. Cook for 10 minutes add the fish and sprinkle with lemon juice and parsley and cook for another 15 minutes. Done. The picture at the top of the page is pretty close but Jamie also does a pretty similar thing. If you can ignore the bit of Teflon advertising, you can see it done in his video:
Or you can simply follow his recipe. The main difference from my recipe is that he uses stock, not water and chops the vegetables rather than slicing them. Now surely people can't argue about that. The fishermen would not have used stock of course. They used sea water. Not sure you would use Mediterranean sea water these days. It's probably not that healthy. The point about that being the salt I suppose. He also chucks in a bay leaf, which lots of the other recipes seemed to do as well, though the dill that he adds is definitely not authentic - but nice.
And yes, it does almost look like soup - hence the confusion with psarasoupa which is definitely a soup, and which I think often has shellfish added to it. The fishermen would not have done this as they would have got good money for the shellfish. They just used up the stuff they couldn't sell. Shouldn't they have thrown it back in?
And what about that saffron that somebody claimed the fishermen would always have with them. Really? Was it cheap back then? Did they grow their own? Because saffron is not something that is just thrown around into peasant dishes is it? Mind you several of the versions I found did indeed add saffron, so maybe I shall do the same. Not that I think that saffron has much taste - now how unfoodie a thing is that to say? But honestly I can't say that I can ever really taste saffron. The delicious version shown here actually looks as if there is saffron in the mix, but there isn't. And, of course, kakavia morphed into bouillabaisse when it got to France, and that definitely includes saffron. Saffron in fact, and the rock fish are the things that make it bouillabaisse.
By now I was confused at what I was actually cooking - if I cared to give it a name that is. Because by now I didn't really care and was beginning to improvise anyway because I don't have any celery, and almost to a man they had quite a lot of celery in there. Do I give in and go to the supermarket to get some, or do I substitute something else? Not that I have anything similar. Frozen peas? Maybe. Frozen spinach? Slightly less maybe. Sliced peppers? I think they might alter the whole flavour balance. Shredded cabbage? Not really. A tin of beans - too much like the potato I think. It's very hot and it's not at all environmentally sound to drive into Eltham just for some celery, so I think I might try the peas option.
Having realised that this is really one of those recipes that is so ancient and so basic that there surely can't be an actual 'ur' recipe, I thought that probably somebody had done something wild with it. The only Greek chef I could think of was the somewhat out of favour George Calombaris. And indeed he did tart it up. Mainly by adding shellfish, but also by adding cream, as shown in this video.
It provoked enormous ire from at least one commenter - fairly because of the advertising - but somewhat unfairly I thought as far as the finished dish was concerned.
"why are chefs like this digging our heritage.....and they are educating the people wrongfully and when people go to Greece expect to see some ugly ass dish like this our Greek cuisine is light amd tasty and has a full body of flavour with exactly like you said four ingredients!!!! Left over fresh fish, potatoes, lemons, onions and olive oil and sea water !!!! Calombaris might be a well known Chef but this is not Greek cuisine and stop altering names in the kitchen and calling whatever you want kakavia or whatever you want, avgolemono soup or whatever you want whatever you want.....call it something else for crying out loud don't mess the tradition up."
Now the opinion might not be expressed in a grammatically correct way, but it's genuine rage. It's a worry.
To my mind something with as vague a name as 'fish stew' or literally something cooked in a kakavi, leaves itself open to the widest of interpretations. I'm betting that no kakavia in Greece is the same as the one in the next village, or even down the street or next door. And actually George Calombaris' version does look pretty good.
Not the shellfish for us though.
Soup or stew? A soupy stew or a thick soup? Who cares? But do try it one day when you have a bit of white fish you don't know what to do with. Nigella made a fish stew in a tomato sauce - which is very different, and probably more Italian. I would add some wine - as did George Calombaris - and others, but it doesn't really need it. It tasty enough with just water, or stock. I have lots of stock so I shall use that.
Here's my version just before the final loading with parsley on top. No cream although I was sorely tempted. I went for the peas as you can see and the fish almost disappeared into it all, so it really wasn't very fishy. Tasty though. The saffron threads remained intact although I think they gave out a bit of their colour. Maybe they were not real saffron?