Bites and Pieces: West African Edition

I hosted a wine dinner on Saturday. It was a bit too ambitious in that I picked 7 fishes as the theme, from the Italian tradition, and also did dishes from 7 . I cheated a bit on Antarctica—frozen yogurt. The trickiest one for planning was Africa. I know relatively little about African cooking (except Ethiopia). Fortunately, my wife went to West Africa (Mali) for her stint in the Peace Corps and knew exactly what to do. Yassa.

Yassa is a Senegalese dish, traditionally served with chicken (Poulet en Yassa). It also works very well with grilled fish. I tried it with swordfish, which was a good finish to the meal. The key ingredients are onions, lemon juice and peanut oil. One traditionally marinades the meat in the ingredients, but I think separating it works.


1 – 2 pounds of swordfish, cubed*

½ cup of peanut oil


Yassa Sauce

4 – 6 yellow onions, sliced

½ cup of lemon juice

½ cup of cider vinegar

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 tablespoons mustard

1 tablespoon soy sauce (Maggi is traditional; soy works fine)

1 minced chili pepper (optional)

Pepper and salt to taste

  1. Combine all ingredients and let rest for at least 2 hours
  2. Cube the swordfish and set aside. If you have a favored preparation, go for it. A bit of salt, pepper, cumin and turmeric works with the flavors of this dish. Have fun!
  3. Heat the peanut oil in a large, heavy bottomed pan or dutch oven. Drain the onions, setting aside the marinade, and add to the pan. Cook over medium heat until softened (and possibly browned a bit). Add the reserved marinade and bring to a boil. Cook until the onions form a sauce
  4. Cook the fish however you like. I planned to grill it, but the coals had gone mostly dark by the time I was ready to cook the fish. I heated up a couple of tablespoons of peanut oil in a pan and seared it, then added the sauce.
  5. Combine the fish and sauce. Warm to combine. Serve over rice. 

*For those who have concerns about the mercury content of swordfish, the dish is made traditionally with sea bass (Poisson Yassa). Chicken breast or pork loin would also work.

9 Responses

  1. This sounds great, and easy, thanks. I typically do not eat swordfish — any suggested substitutes?


  2. My father-in-law did a 7 fishes dinner for Christmas Eve and it was great. I even tried pickled herring which surprisingly tasted for more like pickles than herring. This would have been a great addition to the meal.

    Doesn’t swordfish typically have a high mercury content?


  3. ashot,

    Yes, swordfish and shark have higher levels of methylmercury, so I’d keep it away from ashot jr. until he’s older. Mrs. ashot too, if you are thinking about expanding your family.


    Maybe mahi mahi?


  4. Mahi mahi is a good suggestion and I’ll try it. It’s not the best re mercury levels, but not on the same level as swordfish. Thanks, Mike. (The mercury issue is why I typically do not eat swordfish.)


  5. Swordfish also has a problem with worms (according to Anthony Bourdain in his autobiography Kitchen Confidential chefs never eat swordfish). I stopped eating it years ago because, like tuna, it’s at the top of the food chain. Mahi mahi sounds like a good substitute.


  6. I think this would work well with a variety of fish. Keen had it with sea bass in Mali, so I think Rockfish would work well. Mahi mahi is a good idea. We had mahi mahi for one of the courses. I couldn’t resist having “shrimp on the barbie” as the Australian dish, but one of the guests was allergic to shrimp. I grilled the shrimp, but did a similarly prepared mahi mahi on the stovetop.

    I’m not too worried about eating swordfish regarding worms (and I speak as a survivor of a tapeworm infestation). The fish was cubed and seared, so any little beasties wouldn’t survive.

    The sauce is quite flexible. I’d suggest chicken or cubed pork loin as possible alternatives to fish. Come to think of it, shrimp would work well.



  7. I was quite surprised when I read Bourdain’s comment about the worms, Paul, but like I said, I quit eating it for a different reason.

    It sounds like this sauce would work on just about anything that isn’t red meat–that’s a sauce I can use almost every day!


  8. Yes, since Mrs. Ashot is still nursing, ashot jr is not quite weaned yet, we stay away from a whole lot of fish. Sushi is but a distant memory. I’m going to try the sauce out on some chicken. Seems like a nice easy marinade/sauce to make or have around.


  9. The sauce is fairly tart, given that it contains a cup of acidic ingredients. The onions give you sweetness, I could even go as far as caramelizing them slightly. Definitely go for yellow onions; Vidalia’s or another sweet onion would be good.

    The peanut oil is essential. It’s hard to describe how well it works against the other two flavors. I wouldn’t substitute a light vegetable oil (corn, canola, soy, etc.) A bit of sesame might work well, though it would take the dish in a different direction.



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