This is a very basic recipe that you can easily adapt to your household’s taste preferences by adding your favorite herbs and spices. Do not be afraid to experiment! There is a lot of room in this recipe to play around with ingredients and methods: try deep frying the fish before baking, or use more or less onion, or swap out the vinegar for white cooking wine. Some cooks love to add dried plums for some extra sweetness in the dish (my mother never did this), but other Albanian cooks swear by the onions grown in Drishti i Shkodres, claiming that these onions are already perfectly sweet on their own and if you use them with your carp then you won’t need to add any extra sweetness.
- 1–3 cups oil
- 1–2 pounds chopped onions (use approximately ⅔ pound of onions for every pound of carp)
- 1–2 cups minced garlic
- 1–2 pounds chopped, very ripe tomatoes (skins removed), or 3 cups canned diced tomatoes
- 2–3 cups strong grape vinegar
- 1 cup pistil (dried plum paste) or dried plums (optional)
- 1½ t salt
- 1½ t pepper
- 1½ t sugar
- 4–5 bay leaves (remove before eating)
- 1 bunch fresh parsley, divided
- 1–2 cups water
- 1 whole carp (3–5 pounds)
The ingredients for this dish are first prepared in two separate pans: one skillet for frying the fish and one skillet for making the sauce. Then the contents of these two pans are combined in a baking dish before the fish is finished in the oven. The recipe as written uses the three pan system; however, I find that making the sauce in a large cast iron skillet reduces your workload because you can simply place the lightly fried carp in the sauce and use this same skillet as your baking dish (which means you only have to use two pans!).Some cooks like to first fry the fish, then use the same oil from the frying pan to make their sauce. You can do this, but it is not a requirement—I have found it to be more convenient to fry the fish while the sauce is simmering in a separate skillet.
1. Prepare your carp by cleaning it, drying it, and cutting it into large chunks. The best carp for baking are slender and long male carp. When preparing your carp, always remove the triangular bone by the head; the Shkodran refer to this bone as pethi because it is believed to make the finished dish taste bitter if it is left in the carp. When you remove the head of the fish, be sure to make your cut so that about 2–3 inches of the carp’s body is still attached to the head. The tail is up to your personal preference; you can leave it attached or remove it before cooking.
2. Heat 1 cup of oil in a deep skillet over high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the chopped onions and cook until they become transparent. Add the garlic, and continue cooking until the onion is browned around the edges. Be sure not to let the onions and garlic burn.
3. Add the chopped tomatoes, and cook until the tomatoes and onions become very soft and start to break down—the onions and tomatoes should combine into a homogenous mixture.
4. Add the vinegar, dried plums or pistil, salt, pepper, sugar, bay leaves, and half of the parsley. Mix everything together and allow the mixture to come to a boil.
5. Add one cup of water. If you think that you do not have enough sauce to cover your fish, add more water to the sauce mixture. Let the sauce return to a boil, then lower the heat and let the sauce simmer while you fry the fish.
6. In a separate skillet, heat the remaining 1–2 cups of oil. Place the cleaned and dried pieces of carp into the hot oil and lightly fry them on both sides. This step is essential if you want your pieces of carp to look nice in the finished dish.
7. Place your fried fish in a baking dish and pour the hot sauce over top of the carp pieces. The size of the baking dish will depend on how big your carp is and how spaced out you want your fish in the finished dish. If desired, you can drizzle olive oil over the top (tava e krapit calls for a lot of oil!). Sprinkle more plums, bay leaves, and the remaining parsley over the fish for decoration if you’re planning on serving directly from the baking dish at the table.
8. Bake in a 350°F oven for about an hour. The carp needs to be baked slowly, until the fish is crispy on top and most of the liquid has reduced, leaving only thick sauce with a thin layer of oil on top and around the fish pieces.