Emirati saloona - a versatile and healthy stew with fish, chicken or red meat


Saloona or salona is a classic Arabic stew believed to have beduin origins. It's often made with chicken, but can also be made with fish, beef or lamb. And there is nothing wrong with doing it as a fully vegetarian or vegan version. 

Lamb saloona with saffron rice
Lamb saloona, so far our biggest success in terms of the consistency of the sauce, smooth and velvety. I forgot to add the potatoes though.  

I've had the authentic experience in UAE visiting my sister-in-law. Her chicken saloona blew my mind, it was simple and just spicy enough. This dish is not about chilli, it does have a kick but is really nice even if you want to leave it quite mild. 

This was also one of the first things my husband ever cooked for me. That time it didn't work that perfectly, the fish he used was too soft fleshed and kind of disintegrated during the cooking process. It was tasty though and I appreciated the effort. 

Whole tilapia

Tilapia fish saloona with rice
Tilapia saloona, this is the adult version. A bit fiddly to eat with the bones, and some people might find a large fish head in their soup a bit freaky. Not husband, who loves a good fish head. 

And a couple of years ago I got the flu. I mean the proper flu and was just sick as a dog for over two weeks. I missed my own 50th birthday party with all the family in Finland. And I lost more than a stone. I remember as I recovered thinking this is the best thing ever, it's like falling asleep, having a bit of a nightmare to be fair, but waking up with a new body. My new downsized body lasted about 3 days before the weight crept back on. Anyway, during the illness my husband made me a beautiful and restorative chicken saloona.  

Emirati fish saloona with monkfish
A very nice monkfish saloona, might have been more attractive with the tails cut into two. I eat mine as a soup with a little bit of rice.

Monkfish saloona with saffron rice
Husband eats his like all natives with lots of rice like a curry.

During lockdown we've been perfecting the recipe. This is not a difficult recipe at all, but we want to get the balance of spices and the consistency of the sauce right. Husband and I have been working on this together with one of her sisters on the other end of the phone. We've tried it with different types of fish, whole tilapia, monkfish tails and tuna steaks. My favourite is monkfish tails, husband prefers tuna steaks so sometimes we now use both at the same time. 

We've done a very nice albeit a bit watery chicken version, because husband wouldn't let me remove the lid to help it cook down. And we did a very nice lamb version the other night.  We don't work perfectly as a team I must say, I am too bossy and husband is too stubborn, so it has been a bit spatulas at dawn. But the results have been worth it. 

Tastes like home, says husband. Can't say fairer than that.  

UAE chicken salona with saffron rice
Chicken saloona with saffron rice.

Emirati fish saloona - Arabic fish stew

serves 2 (generously or with leftovers)

For the fish:
400g fresh firm fish like tuna steaks, monkfish tails, a whole tilapia or fillets

For the soup:
1 medium onion
1 garlic clove
Thumbsized piece of fresh ginger (or substitute with 1 tsp ground ginger)
fresh chilli or chilli powder / cayenne pepper to taste
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cardamom
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp cumin
Pinch of saffron (not usually added to the fish version, but definitely for the meat ones)
3 medium potatoes 
1 bell pepper
1 carrot (you can also add other veg of your choice like courgette)
400g of tomatoes 
1 tbsp tomato paste
Dried lime (optional)

Prep your veg. Mince the onion finely. I use a blender. Mincing the onion finely gives more body to the sauce than having them roughly chopped. Grate the garlic and ginger.

I also quickly blend the tinned chopped tomatoes to make a smooth sauce. You can also use fresh tomatoes, chop very finely or blend into pulp.

Chop the bell pepper and carrot. Cut the potatoes into chunks. Emiratis would peel the potatoes, but I leave the peel on, there is fibre and taste in there.

Season the fish pieces with salt, pepper and turmeric. Fry quickly on both sides, just so they get some colour. Don't cook through.  

Add oil to a deep lidded saucepan. On medium heat fry onion, garlic, ginger and fresh finely chopped chilli if using. Add some salt and pepper and the rest of the spices. I go with quite heaped teaspoons. Keep frying for another couple of minutes until the onion softens a little. Add tomatoes, tomato paste and the vegetables (if you use soft veg that cook quickly, like courgette, add them in later so they don't overcook). Pierce the dried lemon with a fork and addto the pan. 

Add water, about 1 1/2 - 2 cups. 

Cover with lid and let it boil for about 20 minutes on low to medium heat. If the sauce is too thick add water. If it looks too thin, let it cook down without a lid. Add the fish to the sauce. Stir gently so that the sauce covers the fish. After this avoid stirring so the fish doesn't break. Cook for another 10-15 minutes on low heat. Serve with rice, a green salad and Arabic flatbread. 

If cooking with chicken add the meat in at the same time with the vegetables so the chicken has enough time to cook. With lamb I add the meat in first and then add the vegetables when the lamb is almost done, because the meat takes a while to become tender. 

You Might Also Like