Monday, 9 April 2012

Cookbook: Taramasalata

Nobody is perfect, dear reader, not even Alfred B. Mittington. We all make mistakes in the course of our lives. One of the worst I ever made, was not to wring the recipe for the very best Taramasalata on earth out of the Paris traiteurs who possessed it. It is one of the blunders of my life which I will never be able to repair, and which I deeply deplore almost daily.

Allow me to explain. At the end of the 1980s, I decided to settle in Paris again for a spot of work and pleasure. Every morning I did my research and my writing, and in the afternoon I relaxed. One of my favourite spots when the sun was out was under the grand Lebanon Cedar in the middle of the labyrinth of the Jardin de Plantes. Ah, what a superb tree that cedar is! A splendid specimen of a magnificent species. A proud giant, representative of its legendary race. This is the wood with which Hiram of Tyre built the Temple of Salomon. Which Wenamun the Egyptian came to fetch for the Grand Bark of Amun at the risk of his life and limbs. It built the ships of the Phoenicians which took them to Cadiz, to Cornwall, around Africa and perhaps even to America! To sit in its shade is to bask in the lustre of glorious millennia. And if I have my way, after my death my ashes will be scattered over the hillock crowned by this king among trees.

One day, walking towards my floral friend from Jussieu metro station, my eye caught sight of a Lebanese sandwich shop on the Rue Linné. It was but a puny little affair, with a menu of only four or five snacks, but it looked clean and offered a curious dish unknown to me: a Taramasalata sandwich. In Rome one does like the Romans, it crossed my mind. If one is to recline under a Lebanon Cedar, what better to nibble but a Lebanese sandwich? So I went in, ordered a ‘Sandwích Taramá’ (watch the accents there!), set my teeth into it and… floated temporarily up to heaven! The bread was of course ordinary French baguette, and the butter the usual supermarket affair. But the Tarama was absolutely delicious: a creamy manna with just enough lemon to tickle the taste buds and a rich, full, tangible aftertaste of ocean, which made you want to be a fish for the rest of your existence…

From here on, dear reader, I had a problem as huge as the Himalaya. I wanted that recipe. I had to have that recipe. I knew I had to do whatever it took to get that recipe… Beg, steal, borrow, bribe, threaten, blackmail, bleed from my wallet or pay with my body… But I never did get it. I never did, because every time I went back to that heavenly Lebanese lunch corner, in my eagerness to eat another Tarama Sandwich, I never got around to asking for the recipe. Time and time again it turned into a fight between my pallet and my curiosity. I could either talk or eat, ask or devour on the spot. To my shame, I have to admit that the hurry of my pallet always vanquished my natural urge to learn. Yes, dear reader: Alfred B. Mittington has weaknesses. He is but a Man. A splendid one, that yes, but a man still.

The secret recipe therefore stayed with the two silent, aproned, swarthy fellows who ran that celestial sandwich shop. I ate many dozens of their Tarama Sandwiches over the spring and the summer, and never learned how it was made. Then August struck, Paris closed, and my Lebanese benefactors took their yearly holiday. By September my Paris time was up. Years later, I returned to the site, determined to ask for their secret before tempting myself by having one in my hand. I found the shop occupied by a lottery vendor. I had foolishly gambled, and grievously lost.

Consequently, the Taramasalata recipe I offer you today is no more than a shadow of the real thing. It is but a distant likeness of little worth, a Fata Morgana in a lifeless desert, a sad derivative compared with-…. What’s that? Calm down, dear reader! Alright, okay, hold your horses! Yes, I can hear you impatient youngsters screaming even here on the Portuguese border. ‘What, for crying out loud, is Taramasalata, Alfred – except for a handy word in a Scrabble game when you’ve drawn all the bloody A’s in the box?’ Do you really not know, ye innocent readers? Ah, then there are still many divine things in life which are yours to discover, you lucky bastards!

Taramasalata, sometimes written Taramosalata, is a Greek fish-roe mash. It is pink, it is salty, it is not something which children necessarily take to, but it is a marvellous dish to serve as an appetizer or a party snack. On top of that it is vegetarian, not unhealthy (if you overlook the salt), fairly cheap and easy to make. The only things I am mildly worried about are its moral and environmental aspects. To the best of my knowledge, roe is not milked from a fish, but cut out, which makes it a lethal, one-harvest operation. Also, to get so many fish you will need a fish farm, the impact of which on our coastlines is infamous. Of course, that is no reason not to eat Tarama – we cannot be saints every second of our lives – but it is something to remember when you decide how much to make of it and how often.

To work then. To whip up a Tarama you will need – as basics - red fish roe (cod or carp), olive oil, lemon juice, and either the soft inside of white bread or boiled potato. The next question is: how much of each? And that is where a veritable Babylonian Confusion starts. I have asked several gourmet friends. I have scrutinized my 400-volume library of cookbooks. I have surfed that infamous modern mud pool of information, the Internet. And I never got two identical answers. It is obvious that there is no Taramatic Academy anywhere in the world which has set the standards and formulated the infallible canon. Every cook simply does as he pleases and combines the ingredients in the proportions of his choice. No help can be had from our neighbours, and since I failed so dismally to secure that fabulous Rue Linné recipe, not even I can help you, dear reader. I can only give you the proportions which I personally use for a decent Tarama, and then impress upon you the need to experiment and find your own preferred way.

So here is what I use:

75 grams of roe (sold in little jars as shown in the picture)
40 ml lemon juice (roughly ½ fair sized lemon)
50 ml olive oil
175 gr of boiled potato

Additionally, I toss in

            A small piece of chopped onion
            Half a teaspoon of sugar (to offset the bitter taste of olive oil)
            A pinch of salt

Now I must admit that my way of making Tarama is a little crude. Greek cooks seem to make it the way I make mayonnaise, by gradually adding drops of oil to the mashed roe while steadily whipping the mix. This, however, has never worked for me, so I go about it the other way around, using an immersion blender. If there are now Greek chefs in my audience who scream in agony and furiously denounce me in the same terms as I did when describing barbarians who use food processors to make mayonnaise, I can only humbly bow my head and confess I am a sinner, a barbarian and a beast. But, I add: my Tarama is not so bad as I am. So unless you have a better teacher than me at hand, do make the dish according to the following instructions:

Put the lemon juice, the chopped onion, and the fish roe into the container. Put in the blender and run for half a minute, until the roe and onion are perfectly mashed. Pour in the oil, toss in the salt and the sugar, and run the blender some more. The mix will now look rather like pink whipping cream waiting for the whisk. Now crush the boiled potato with a fork, and add half to the liquid. Run the blender, mixing well. Repeat this with pieces of potato until your Tarama has the desired consistency. Put into a cute bowl, cover it and keep it in the fridge for at least four hours, but – if possible – for twenty-four. This kind of Tarama comes out much tastier if it gets a chance to ripen.

As said: the above is but one way of making Tarama, and certainly not the most sophisticated one. Go look on the web, and you will find that variations are endless. Some people put chopped parsley into the mix. Others add egg yolk, which turns the Tarama into a sort of fish roe mayo if you ask me. Others yet again add garlic, which I personally find rather unappetising. The one variety which one sees most often and which gives excellent results is replacing the potato with the soft inside of day-old white bread, soaked in milk. My main problem with that one is that you get to throw away a heap of crusts, which - in this world of hunger and waste – displeases me greatly. But, if you do one day have a leftover loaf you don’t know what to do with, then using it for a neat Tarama is a much better idea than to toss it into the garbage.

Oh: and while you and your loved ones are partaking of this marvellous Greek dish, do not forget to say a little prayer for the people of Greece, who no longer eat Tarama, but eat out of garbage cans, so that the Brussels Elite might institute their particular form of Prosperity and Democracy


  1. Thank you for this helpful description of taramasalata. If it were just a matter of taste, and not waste, would you say the addition of bread would be closer to what you ate in Paris?

  2. Dear Ms Debra,

    To tell the honest truth: yes. Much as the potato is a marvelous foodstuff, the soft inside of well-baked white bread is more neutral in taste, and lighter in texture. I did once make a rather respectable tarama with Wonderbread. It came out well, but as we all know: Wonderbread is not exactly healthy...

    Thank you for your reaction.

    A.B. Mittington.

  3. Haha! I love your story Mr. Mittington. But first, I must say... you Europeans are lucky in that you can just decide where to stay and presto - it is *sigh*. SOme of my options are Zimbabwe and The Congo - hardly fair is it?

    The second thing... I find very few men master the art of delayed gratification. To the detriment of recipes worldwide :)

  4. The combining form of tarama (fish roe) is taramo-, which is why the only correct way to write the salad is taramosalata. "Taramasalata" is factually incorrect.
    Compare the word for woman, gynecA, with gynecOlogist. That's how the Greek language works. Replace the alpha with an omicron and connect the next word.

  5. Dear sir or madam,

    As I am one who believes a man is never too old to learn, I thank you for your explanation. Of course, I should have known this from high school classes in classic Greek; but the war broke out, and I had other obligations…

    Other than that: do YOU have a miracle recipe for Taramosalata??

    Yours, respectfully, ABM