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This Spicy Tomato-Braised Fish Is a Symbol of Jewish-Libyan Heritage

Chraime—tomatoey fish that’s heady with chiles, garlic, and spices—is a symbol of Jewish-Libyan heritage and home.

Published Aug. 7, 2023.

Chraime is home. When I miss my family, I cook chraime.” To Israeli-born Shay Lavi, chef-owner of The Third Space in Atlanta, Georgia, a bubbling skillet of the bright, earthy stewed fish is the best panacea for a wistful heart. 

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Chraime (the Arabic word for “hot,” pronounced hraiy-may) originated in Libya on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, where Jewish settlers lived peaceably for more than 3,000 years. Persecution of Jews in Libya beginning in the late 1930s marked the start of the community’s demise, with many eventually fleeing the country (for more on this devastating history, see "Why Libyan Jews Enjoy Chraime from Afar"). When they left, they brought this treasured dish with them, and it continues to be a treasured part of their cuisine.

Growing up in Or-Yehuda, Israel, Lavi, whose father is from Libya, learned to make chraime from the matriarchs of his family. They gently braise whole white fish (fillets are common too) in tomato paste thinned with fish stock or water along with onions and whole fresh chiles. But the most important component—the source of chraime’s foundational flavors—is filfel chuma, a wildly delicious paste of garlic, spices, and dried chiles, that is a pillar of the Libyan‑Jewish kitchen. 

Why Libyan Jews Enjoy Chraime From Afar

The history of Jews in Libya stretches as far back as the third century BCE, but virtually no Jews live in the country today. The reasons are complex. In 1911, after the Italo-Turkish War, Italians took control of the region, and Libyan Jews enjoyed mostly positive conditions. But beginning in 1938, persecution programs instituted by fascist Italy marked the start of the demise of the Jewish community in Libya. By the early 1940s, under the influence of Nazi Germany, Libyan Jews were deported to concentration camps, where many perished. Persecution of Jews in Libya continued after the war, with the majority emigrating to Israel and later Italy. 

But refugees carried their foodways and traditions with them, including chraime, which was originally prepared with gifts of the region: fish from the Mediterranean Sea, wild garlic, fragrant spices such as cumin and caraway, and fiery chiles that made their way to the area via merchants returning from the New World. Jewish people with roots in Libya still make the dish as a reminder of their long-ago home.

A Taste of Home

With guidance from Lavi, I set out to create my own recipe for chraime. Since it originated on the seacoast, a variety of saltwater fish can feature in the dish, including halibut, cod, grouper, snapper, and sea bream. I opted for halibut fillets. Fillets are easy on the cook, and their moist, dense flesh and clean sweetness would be an ideal canvas for the lively sauce. I left the skin on and seared it to render its valuable fat, which would suffuse its oceanic flavor into the braising liquid. Then, once the skin was golden, I removed the fillets from the pan and softened a chopped onion and a pair of whole longhorn chiles—my sub for the pilpel charif used in Israel—in the oil.

When the onions were tender, I spooned in an entire can of tomato paste; as its color deepened, so did its caramelized, fruity profile. Next, big personality came in the form of filfel chuma. My version consists of sweet and smoked paprikas; fragrant caraway seeds and cumin; rich, smoky rehydrated guajillo chiles (any moderately spiced dried chile can be used to personalize the paste); an arresting amount of fresh garlic; peppery extra-virgin olive oil; and salt. Finally, as a flavorful alternative to fish stock, I deglazed the pan with water, fresh lemon juice and zest, and the brick-red guajillo soaking liquid.

Science: The Benefits of Skin-On Fish

For rich body and deep flavor, we sear the skin of halibut fillets to render its fat and create savory Maillard browning. Atlantic and Pacific halibut are both quite lean, and (like most lean white fish) more than half their fat is in or under the skin. Later, as the fillets simmer in the broth, the skin’s collagen breaks down, forming silky gelatin that gives the sauce a spoon-coating consistency. 

Perfectly Poached

I nestled the fish into the vermillion sauce, brought it to a simmer with the lid on, and then extinguished the flame. Using residual heat is a failproof way to poach fin fish: After about 10 minutes, the halibut registered 130 degrees, the temperature at which its flesh turns opaque and tastes tender and succulent.  

I was about to pronounce the recipe complete when I remembered Lavi revealed that his grandmother always added fresh tomato to her chraime just before serving. In most chraime recipes, thick, concentrated paste is the sole tomato element, but after stirring two finely chopped tomatoes into the sauce, I too loved the light tang of the fresh fruit.

Serve chraime with warm challah to mop up the spicy tomato sauce.

For my final batch, I made a small adjustment to control the consistency of the sauce: Before cooking the fish, I salted the tomatoes and set them aside in a strainer perched atop a measuring cup. Once the sauce was underway, a good amount of subtly sweet tomato water had collected, so I stirred it into the skillet along with the lemon juice, chile soaking liquid, and water, saving the strained tomato pieces to add at the end.

In many homes, including Lavi’s when he was growing up, chraime is a year-round first course for Friday night Shabbat; others reserve it for holidays. Whenever you choose to make it, be sure to have plenty of challah on hand to soak up every last bit of the rich, spicy sauce; Lavi also suggests serving mseyer (a quick-pickled vegetable relish) alongside. 

Libya’s Spicy, Garlicky All-Purpose Condiment

The Libyan chile paste called filfel chuma isn’t just for chraime; it brings gutsy flavor to meats and vegetables too: Make a batch to use as a marinade or to dress food after cooking. Alternatively, stir some into mayonnaise to spice up potato salad or dollop it onto hummus or scrambled eggs.


Halibut Chraime (Fish in Spicy Tomato Sauce)

Chraime—tomatoey fish that's heady with chiles, garlic, and spices—is a symbol of Jewish-Libyan heritage and home.
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