Recipes: Reel them in with flavorful fish sandwiches

These dishes, popular in coastal areas, overflow with Middle Eastern flavors.

Lebanese-style fish (samkeh harra) sandwich with tarator.

I’ve never met a fish sandwich I didn’t love, and I’m not alone — they’re popular in coastal areas all over the map. In Lebanon, particularly in the north near Tripoli, the popular dish samkeh harra, or spicy fish with a tahini sauce called tarator, is often served in a sandwich. And the Turkish sandwich balik ekmek (which translates roughly to “fish bread”) is a street-food institution sold along several of Istanbul’s famous bridges.


Makes about 1 cup

1/2 cup tahini

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice


1 teaspoon pressed or grated garlic (about 1 large clove)

3/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Pinch cayenne pepper

Salt and ground black pepper

About 1/4 cup water, or more as needed


In a medium bowl, whisk the tahini, lemon juice, garlic, cumin, cayenne, 1/2 teaspoon salt, black pepper to taste, and 2 tablespoons water until uniform. Whisk in up to 2 more tablespoons of water, one at a time, until the mixture is uniform and the consistency is like loose applesauce. Adjust seasoning with salt and black pepper. Sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to four days. It will thicken in the fridge; before serving, return it to room temperature and adjust the consistency with water if necessary.

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Lebanese-Style Fish (Samkeh Harra) Sandwich With Tarator

Makes 4 sandwiches

I like to put most of the spices on the fish itself, rather than in the sauce, which is more common. Prep the Tarator first, so it’s ready when you need it.

1½ teaspoons ground sumac

3/4 teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon


3/4 teaspoon cumin

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Salt and ground black pepper

4 5- to 6-ounce pieces skinned firm, meaty white fish fillets, such as tilapia, snapper, or catfish (about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds total)

Extra-virgin olive oil

Vegetable oil, for the grill

2 large mountain breads or lavash (about 10 by 12 inches), each cut in half, or 4 approximately 8-inch pitas, split at the seam on one side

1 cup Tarator (see recipe)

2 large fresh lemon wedges

1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted lightly and cooled, or chopped toasted walnuts

1 medium ripe tomato, cored and sliced thin

1 cup torn or roughly chopped mixed fresh tender herbs, such as parsley, cilantro, dill, mint, or chives, scallion greens, and/or celery leaves

In a small bowl, mix the sumac, coriander, cinnamon, cumin, cayenne, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and black pepper to taste and stir to mix. Rub the fish lightly with olive oil, then coat each piece all over with about 1/4 of the spice mixture; set aside to rest while preparing the grill.

Prepare a hot fire in a charcoal grill or preheat a gas grill on high (if using gas, grill with the lid closed). Clean and oil the grill grate three times. Grill the fish, undisturbed, until grill-marked and firm but not stiff when pressed lightly with your finger, 6 to 10 minutes, turning once halfway through. Do not overcook. Cooked fish should register about 125 degrees on an instant-read thermometer; exact cooking time will depend on the type of fish and thickness of the fillets.

To assemble the sandwiches, spread each sheet of bread (or the inside of each split pita) with about 2 tablespoons of Tarator, or more, to taste. Top each one with a piece of grilled fish, a squeeze of lemon from the wedges, 1 tablespoon nuts, a couple of tomato slices, and 1/4 cup of herbs. Working one at a time, fold the bottom 1½ inches or so of the bread sheet up onto the fillings and roll, gently tucking and tightening as you go (or close the pitas) and serve at once.

Tip: Wholly Mackerel

In my experience buying mackerel for balik ekmek, usually at Whole Foods, the fish are sold whole; ask the fishmonger to fillet them for you. When you get the fillets home, you’ll find a row of tiny bones running lengthwise down the center. Remove them by using the tip of a paring knife to make two angled cuts (they should meet at the bottom to form a V) into but not all the way through the fillets, freeing the row of bones. At about 2 1/2 ounces each, mackerel fillets are small. Because they are flavorful, I think one fillet per sandwich is fine, but if you want larger portions, buy two extra fillets and use 1 1/2 per sandwich.

Turkish-Style Fish Sandwich (Balik Ekmek)

Makes 4 sandwiches

If mackerel isn’t for you, try another fish with a milder flavor that will stand up to the grill, such as tilapia. Tilapia fillets often weigh 5 to 6 ounces, so cook them for a little longer, 3 to 4 1/2 minutes per side.

For these sandwiches, I prefer pieces of baguette or oblong sandwich rolls to mirror the shape of the fish fillet. Use bread with a relatively soft crumb and thin crust, rather than rustic, dense bread with a substantial crust. I also like to grill the onions, which are usually added raw.

Most recipes specify grilling the mackerel, but you can prepare it on the stove top--if you don’t mind the aroma of the fish in the kitchen. In a large cast-iron or nonstick skillet, char the onion slices in a little vegetable or olive oil over medium-high heat for about 3 minutes per side, then pan-fry the fish in a little olive oil over medium-high heat for about 2 1/2 minutes per side.

Note that you’ll need a long, heatproof spatula with a thin edge to turn the fish and remove it from the grill.

4 mackerel fillets, each about 7 inches long and 2½ ounces (about 10 ounces total)

1 medium-large onion, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices, and threaded onto skewers if desired

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and ground black pepper

Vegetable oil, for the grill grate

1 lemon, cut into 6 wedges, 4 wedges reserved for serving

Aleppo or Urfa pepper flakes

4 5-inch lengths light, soft baguette or similar sandwich roll, halved lengthwise

1 medium ripe tomato, cored and sliced thin

4 medium leaves green, red, or butter lettuce

Prepare a medium-hot fire in a charcoal grill or preheat a gas grill on high for 15 minutes (if using gas, adjust the burners to medium-high and grill with the lid closed). Brush the fish and onion with olive oil and sprinkle lightly with salt and black pepper. Clean and oil the grill grate three times and grill the fish, undisturbed, until firm but not stiff when pressed lightly with your finger, about 5 minutes, turning once halfway through. Cooked fish should register about 125 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Grill the onions until just tender, browned, and grill-marked, 12 to 20 minutes, turning them over once halfway through the first 12 minutes and as necessary thereafter. Slide the onions off the skewers, if using. Remove the fish skin if desired.

Brush the interior of each piece of bread with olive oil. Place a fish fillet on each of four pieces, squeeze lemon over the fish, and sprinkle with Aleppo or Urfa pepper to taste. Top each piece of fish with a slice of grilled onion (or more, to taste), about 2 slices of tomato, and a lettuce leaf folded to fit. Position the remaining 4 pieces of bread on the sandwiches, pressing them into place gently yet firmly. Cut the sandwiches in half, if desired, and serve at once with lemon wedges.

Adam Ried appears regularly on “America’s Test Kitchen.” Send comments to Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.