St. Peter’s Fish in Galilee restaurant | Photo: איתן טל Etan Tal,  Creative Commons.

While I was working on this week’s post about the miracle of loaves and fishes, I got curious about a delicacy served in restaurants around the Sea of Galilee called St. Peter’s fish. It looks absolutely disgusting, but it’s delicious. Especially with chips (or fries, as we say in the US). I will do anything — absolutely anything — to distract myself when I’m in the process of writing, so I got on Google to see if I could find a recipe so we could reproduce it at home.

(Well, maybe not exactly reproduce it. When Debi and I were touring the Holy Land, our tour group stopped at a restaurant right after seeing the “Jesus boat” — a first-century fishing craft — at Kibbutz Ginosar on the Sea of Galilee. St. Peter’s fish was the speciality of the house, so I ordered it. I’ll eat anything that swims — my Norwegian heritage, I guess — but Debi took one look at it and loaded up instead on mezze, the hors d’oeuvres the Middle East is so famous for.

(So with that experience in mind, I was looking for recipes we could adapt for frozen, already-filleted fish. I was also looking for something easy enough for me to thaw and cook.)

Well, I found several. I’ll link them below. But first, some background.

According to Pat McCarthy, a tour guide who edits the SeetheHolyLand.com website, St. Peter’s fish gets its name from a story in the gospel of St. Matthew:

The nickname refers to the Gospel passage in which Temple collectors ask Peter whether Jesus pays the Temple tax.

When Peter returns home, Jesus tells him to go fishing — “go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me”. (Matthew 17:24-27)

That’s the same story I heard at Kibbutz Ginosar. There are other stories, involving a different species of fish, but that’s the one I heard, and I’m sticking to it.

After we got back from the Holy Land, I read everything I could get my hands on about it. (That’s one way I double the pleasure from a vacation: I read up on it when I get home. It’s a way of extending the holiday, and I can get a better idea of just what it was I saw.) I learned St. Peter’s fish is a kind of tilapia. Some are native to the Sea of Galilee.

According to a feature story about Galilean recipes on the Ynetnews.com website, affiliated with Israel’s mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronot newspaper, the Sea of Galilee is pretty fished out. So other species of tilapia raised in Israeli fish farms are more commonly served in local restaurants, but it’s a favorite with tourists and pilgrims. It’s a cook-page feature, and the Ynetnews.com story has several recipes, along with some general tips:

Raised in both fishponds and organically, the delicious tilapia is highly suitable for light and dietetic cooking – as long as one avoids oil-rich sauces, of course. Like any fish, tilapia is best after the briefest possible stay in the skillet or oven.

One of the simplest ways to prepare tilapia is in the microwave. Recently, supermarket freezer sections have begun stocking ready-to-cook tilapia fillets, both with and without spices, which are worth purchasing.

Since dates are also a Galilean delicacy Ynetnews.com’s article features several sauces using date honey (known as silan in Hebrew). Here’s the basic fish recipe. I especially like it, because you can just nuke the fish in a microwave:

Microwave Tilapia
Serves: 4
Ingredients:
— 2-4 tilapias (about 2½ pounds of fish)
— 3 TBSP olive or walnut oil
— Salt
— Pepper
Directions: Rub the tilapias with oil, both on the inside and the outside. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and place in a covered microwave-safe dish. Cook covered, on high, for approximately 8 minutes. Turn the fish over, and cook for an additional 8 minutes. The fish is done when the flesh is opaque and crumbles at the touch of a fork.

Ynetnews.com also has a recipe for frozen tilapia fillets, which basically calls for you to nuke them with salt and pepper and serve them with a lemon and chopped fresh herbs:

If the fillets are frozen, there is no need to defrost them. Place the fillets in a microwave-safe dish, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover with a slotted lid. Microwave 1 minute for each fillet (2 minutes if the fillets are frozen). Turn the fillets over halfway through the cooking. The fish is ready when the flesh is opaque white and crumbles at the touch of a fork.

Serve with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Chopped fresh herbs – such as za’atar (hyssop), parsley, basil, thyme, oregano, sage, or tarragon – are a nice addition. Garnish with hot pepper, if desired.

For those whose cooking skills are more advanced than mine, the paper also has recipes for a Olive Oil and Silan [date honey] Marinade; a Spicy Date Sauce with Tabasco to taste; and and a Basil, Wine, and Silan Sauce.

There are other recipes out there. They look pretty fussy to me, but they suggest herbs and spices that might go well with tilapia broiled with olive oil. Or fried in olive oil. So I think they’re worth a look. And a more accomplished cook than I could probably whip them out easily.

One, on a page of Israeli recipes published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has a recipe for St. Peter’s fish fried in olive oil and served with a parsley and lemon sauce. Ingredients are basic — lemon juice, garlic and parsley for the sauce.

Another, from a Catholic cookbook called Buon Appetito, Your Holiness that features recipes from the Vatican, has minced tarragon, rosemary, thyme, parsley, basil, garlic, ground ginger and, of course, lemon juice. It calls for another type of fish, sometimes called a John Dory in England, but suggests fillet of sole as a substitute.

An online excerpt from Buon Appetito, Your Holiness, by the way, is where I found the other legends about St. Peter. All but one of them seem to refer to the John Dory (aka St Pierre or Peter’s Fish), which looks nothing like a tilapia and is a salt-water fish, anyway. But they’re kind of interesting:

It is said that the saint found this fish caught up in his net and, seeing how ugly it was, gingerly picked it up between two fingers (marking the two black spots on its side) and threw it back into the water. Others have ventured that these marks are black because St. Peter had previously worked as a charcoal-maker; still other accounts identify them as marks of holy gratitude, since in the fish’s mouth the apostle found a silver coin with which he was able to pay the excise man at Capernaum.

Ruti Keinan of Ynetnews.com has yet another story.

“Legend has it that the tilapia was involved in the Christian miracle of the loaves and fishes (hence, the name “St. Peter’s fish”),” she says, before getting into the microwave recipes. “In any event, the tilapia is certainly a veteran Galilean resident; the fish appears prominently in antique mosaics discovered in ancient synagogues and churches.”

And, of course, in the restaurants serving the tourists and pilgrims who flock to the Sea of Galilee.

Works Cited (and Links)

“International Israeli Table — Sample Recipes,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, May 28, 2003 https://mfa.gov.il/mfa/israelexperience/lifestyle/pages/the%20international%20israeli%20table-%20sample%20recipes.aspx.

Ruti Keinan, “Galilean Delicacies,” Ynetnews, Yedioth Media Group, June 11, 2006, https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3323999,00.html.

Mariangela Rinaldi and Mariangela Vicini, “Catholic Recipe: St. Peter’s Fish with Herbs,” Buon Appetito, Your Holiness: The Secrets of the Papal Table (2000), reprinted in CatholicCulture.org https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/recipes/view.cfm?id=1442.

“Sea of Galilee,” ed. Pat McCarthy. See the Holy Land https://www.seetheholyland.net/sea-of-galilee-article-israeloutside-jerusalem/.

2 thoughts on “St. Peter’s fish, a surprisingly tasty meal with a 2,000-year backstory in Galilee

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