fish in peppery tomato sauce

Sephardic Fish in Peppery Tomato Sauce

This easy and delicious fish in peppery tomato sauce is flavored with garlic, coriander, harissa, and piquant capers, bathed in a slightly spicy tomato sauce. It’s another one of those “Jewish” recipes you may not recognize as Jewish. In America we tend to think of “Ashkenazi” food as Jewish, call it a day, and forget about the Sephardim. This is a terrible mistake, since Sephardic food (Spanish, Middle Eastern, Portuguese, and North African) is spicy, flavorful, and has much more variety than its Eastern European cousins.  In fact, one day, I want to skip the Eastern European Passover and have a Sephardic one instead! Goals! 

I’ve adapted this recipe from The Book of Jewish Food , which says that fish is  considered a symbol of abundance, making it a favorite dish for Friday night (Sabbath) meals. Fish was also popular in Morocco and Italy for weddings, as it was thought to symbolize fruitfulness. For Rosh Hashanah, it was served with the head left on, so Jews would be “ ‘ahead with good deeds and serve as a model of goodness. ’ ”  I think this dish certainly fits the bill.

The nice thing is that you don’t have to wait for a holiday or a special occasion to make it. It’s ready in about 25 minutes, so it’s perfect for a weeknight dinner.

If you’re not familiar with harissa, it’s a hot chili garlic sauce used for fish, chicken, and lots of other dishes in North Africa. As I am writing this, it occurs to me that it’s a bit like African sriracha sauce.  If you have some, or can get some, use it. If not, a mixture of cayenne and paprika will work just fine.

I also saw another, similar recipe (called chraime) that referred to this as Sephardic “gefilte fish.” Never having been a big fan of gefilte fish, I’ll take this recipe in a New York minute!

The dish will work with any firm fish, such as grouper, red snapper, or cod. I used cod from Trader Joe’s (the frozen fish is inexpensive and good quality). Serve it with rice (as I did), or make it with couscous.

Peppery Fish in Tomato Sauce

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Category: dinner

Cuisine: North African


fish in peppery tomato sauce

A Sephardic Jewish fish dish that's festive enough for a special occasion, but easy enough for a Tuesday. Works with any firm fish and it's ready in about 25 minutes.


  • 1/2 medium onion (about 1/2 C), chopped
  • 1 T neutral oil, such as canola or sunflower
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 1/2 tsp harissa or 1/4 tsp paprika plus a generous pinch of cayenne)
  • 2/3 cup crushed tomatoes
  • Salt to taste
  • 1/4 tsp sugar (depending on how sweet the tomatoes are, you may not need this)
  • 1 1/2 tsp capers (drained and patted dry)
  • 1-2 fish steaks (about 1/2 lb. total)
  • 1 tsp ground coriander (or a sprig of fresh if you have it)


  1. Heat the oil in the frying pan on medium heat. Add the onions and gently cook for a few minutes until they soften and start to turn color (don’t let them burn!). Add the crushed garlic and cook for a minute (until it too starts to change color). Add the harissa (or cayenne/paprika) and stir.
  2. Pour the tomatoes into the pan, then add the salt, sugar, and the drained capers.
  3. Now add the fish steaks and spoon the tomato mixture over them in the pan.
  4. Cover the pan and let it all simmer for 10 minutes. Then remove the lid, and flip the fish over on the other side. Spoon more sauce over it and add the coriander. Put the lid back on the pan and cook for another 5 minutes.


You’ll want to use a larger skillet so you have enough room to turn the pieces of fish over without breaking them.

Fish in Peppery Tomato Sauce Substitutions and Variations

  • Try sriracha or chili garlic sauce instead of the harissa paste (with a bit more coriander added this is similar to a Tunisian version of this dish)
  • Use cumin, tomato paste, and both sweet and hot peppers in the sauce
  • Add olive oil, then the fish, then top that with one or two whole garlic cloves, more salt and pepper, and more coriander, and let it cook on a grill for half an hour (if you like fresh cooked tomatoes, put them under and over the fish

Try These Other Fish Recipes

Easy Mediterranean Fish Stew

Greek Fish with Lemon and Tomatoes

Indian Fish Fillet in Yogurt Sauce

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