There’s No Life Without Agristada
Shared by Regina Gilboa and Bracha Luft
Recipe Roots: Spain > Bulgaria > Tel Aviv
Food was always an important thread that tied together Regina Gilboa and Bracha Luft’s family. The sisters, who are both in their 70’s and live 20 minutes away from one another in and near Tel Aviv, were raised by a mother who cooked everything from scratch like spinach patties in a sour sauce, which Bracha still makes. But, it wasn’t just their mother Yehudit who was responsible for the food in their family. Their father, Sasson, who immigrated to Palestine when he was a young boy from Bulgaria, helped source the food the family ate.
He enlisted in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army Brigade at the age of 35, the sisters recalled when we cooked with them at Bracha’s home in Tel Aviv this fall. And, when he was discharged after three years, he wanted to establish a fishing village with the others he served with. They started Moshav Mikhmoret, on the the shores of the Mediterranean sea, where Bracha was born in 1946. The family only lived here for a few years before moving to Or Yehuda, where they could grow their own vegetables and fruit, but a tradition of eating fish seemed to follow them inland.
Every Friday night, agristada, a lemon-infused sauce that originated with Jews in Spain before the Inquisition, was used as a dressing for fish that started their meal. The sauce became synonymous with the dish and instead of calling it fish with agristada sauce, they simply called it agristada. In their family, they used to say “there’s no life without Agristada.”
It’s a sauce that traveled from the Balkans with the expulsion and ultimately to Israel with Sasson’s sisters, who ensured their family recipes weren’t lost. They passed it on to Yehudit, who left it with her daughters. While Regina included it in a self-published cookbook she made for her granddaughter, it is her sister Bracha she turns to to make it. Fortunately, the two still spend most Friday nights together — and hopefully, with the help of the cookbook, another generation will carry on the tradition.
Fried Fish with Agristada Sauce
Time: 1 hour
2 lb cod fillet or red mullet fillets, cut into 1 inch cubes, room temperature
½ cup lemon juice
¾ teaspoon salt, divided
vegetable or grapeseed oil, for deep pan frying
1 cup AP flour
2 cups warm water
2 tablespoons AP flour
¼ cup vegetable oil
⅓ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt
1. Pre-soak the fish by placing the fish fillets in a shallow dish, pour the lemon juice on top, sprinkle ¼ teaspoon salt and turn the fish until well coated. Let soak for half an hour, turning once or twice. Move the fillets to a colander, discarding the juice, and rinse well. Air dry or pat dry with paper towels.
2. While the fish is soaking, make the agristada sauce. In a medium saucepan, whisk the eggs until evenly blended. In a small bowl, vigorously mix the warm water with the flour, until there are no visible lumps, then strain it through a sieve or a strainer into the saucepan. Add the oil, lemon juice and salt and place on medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the sauce thickens, about 10 to 12 minutes. When it is about to boil, remove from heat, keep stirring for 1 more minute, then strain again into a glass dish. Taste and add more lemon juice or salt if necessary. Cover with plastic wrap on the surface of the sauce to avoid a film on top. Cool to room temperature, or in the fridge if not serving yet.
3. To fry the fish fillets, heat oil that reaches halfway up in a large pan (the oil is ready for frying when a wooden spoon handle placed in the oil results in small bubbles around it).
4. Mix the flour in a shallow bowl with ¼ teaspoon salt, and whisk the eggs in another shallow bowl with the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt.
5. Cover each fish piece in flour from all sides, shaking off excess flour, then dip in the eggs from all sides, letting the excess drip. Place a few pieces of fish in the oil, not overcrowding the pan, and fry on medium heat until well browned, 5 minutes on each side. Remove to a paper towel lined deep dish and continue with the rest of the fish in batches. You can keep the fish warm in a 220F oven, until the frying is done. Serve immediately with agristada sauce.