The first shoals of dolphinfish reach the Tunisian coast in early autumn, just when the dates are ripening on the age-old palm trees of the oasis. Palm trees and nets blend together in a strange ritual to catch these long-awaited fish.
The most common species in the Mediterranean is Coryphaena hippurus, which is called lambucca in Tunisia (this is very similar to the Italian name for the species, lampuga). The common dolphinfish is very beautiful, with a many-hued iridescent appearance, ranging from blue, to mauve, to pink, to gold and silver, according to the intensity and angle of the sun’s rays. It has a tapering, spindle-shaped body which can grow up to a meter in length. Its status as a sought-after prey is intensified by the speed with which it travels during migration and the brevity of its sojourn along the coast.
From late September onwards the little ports of the eastern coast of Tunisia, from Sahel to the gulf of Gabès, where they fish in shallow waters, are suddenly alive with anticipation. The fishermen watch for the approach of the dolphinfish restlessly; they have spent the summer catching paltry sardines during the long, moonless nights on the lamara boats. Every year the same arguments inevitably arise about the right to fish which portion of sea, but good humor always prevails and the preparation of traps attracts friends and family to the port. The fishermen use palm branches cut during the date harvest to make little canopies over the sea. The palms cover a floating structure made of planks to which the nets are fixed with ropes and large stones. This forms a large shadow on the surface of the water. The men wait silently around this extraordinary trap on their little rowing boats. When the shoal of dolphinfish, trying to escape from the sunlight, pauses in the shade of the palms, the raìs (captain) gives the order to pull up the bolt-ropes, pull in the sides of the net, and perform all the other actions necessary to encircle the fish. A shimmering mass of myriads of color, the dolphinfish are now imprisoned in the net. Their migration south ends in the fish market.
How do you cook this type of fish?
On the grill, cut into slices and drizzled with a little oil and lemon. Eat it hot, with fresh bread and tomatoes fried in olive oil, with salt, crushed coriander seeds chili pepper and garlic. Another type of dressing is the sauce known as charmoula made from fresh tomatoes, and thinly-sliced zucchini cooked in oil and then tossed in vinegar.
Fried in oil, whole or in slices, according to the size, flavored before cooking with cumin and salt. In this case the fish is often accompanied by a dish of fried vegetables: potatoes, hot green peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini or pumpkin. Just before bringing the fish to the table, it is sprinkled with chopped parsley.
In the oven. The Tunisians flavor the fish with halved tomatoes and a few cloves of garlic, and slices of lemon placed all around. Then they half-cover the fish with water, and add a few spoons of olive oil, salt, turmeric and cumin. This is similar to an Italian recipe “acqua pazza”.
The cooking time for all three methods varies according to the size of the fish, but in any case is quite short, because dolphinfish meat is very tender.
Lilia Zaoualiis a lecturer in anthropology of the Islamic world at the University of Jussieu, Paris.
Photo: a Lambucca fish