Will the real hamour please stand up?

Baby boomers in the U.S. will remember this. Beginning in 1956 on CBS, a popular panel game show called “To Tell The Truth” ran for 12 years on American television. The show featured four panelists who were tasked with trying to figure out which of three guests (known as “challengers”) pretending to be a certain person and claiming an unusual occupation was, in fact, telling the truth. The show typically began with the announcer asking the trio of challengers (referred to as Number One, Number Two, and Number Three) “What is your name, please?” After the challengers all gave the same answer, the panelists would pepper them with a series of probing questions, trying to solve the mystery of who was fibbing and who was actually telling the truth. At the end of each program, with the words, “Will the real [person’s name] please stand up?” the announcer would ask the genuine truth-sayer to rise to his or her feet and be recognized.

Beginning in 2016 and continuing to the present, the show has been revived in the U.S. for the sixth time on another network, ABC. Over the years, international versions using a similar format and variations of that same signature question have appeared at different times on television in 12 different countries, including among others Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

This article is about fish and, to be more specific, about the Arabian Gulf fish commonly known as the hamour. If fish could talk, and if the number of challengers could be expanded beyond three, and if U.S. visas could be obtained for the visiting fish, I should propose that a special airing of ABC’s reincarnation of “To Tell The Truth” be convened inviting members of a veritable school of distinct grouper species from the Arabian Gulf—each one claiming to be the real hamour—to appear on the show. I should then insist that they be subjected to rigorous questioning by the panelists and asked at the end of the show the decisive question: “Will the real hamour please stand up?”

How else are we to find a truthful answer to this important question? There are so many contenders for the title. It seems that every time I try to solve it myself, I stumble upon a new authority offering a different answer. Who among them is one to believe? The deeper I delve into this mystery, the cloudier the picture becomes.

A matter of greater importance to people living along the Arabian Gulf, however, is finding a way to assure the long-term survival of the beloved fish they call hamour. A possible rallying cry for them might be, “Save the hamour!”

Those words should capture the attention of any Aramco ExPat anywhere in the world who has ever dined on this mouth-watering member of the grouper family freshly caught from the Arabian Gulf and prepared and served in an oh-so-special way, whether from one’s own kitchen in camp, or from that of a fellow Aramcon, or from that of a favorite restaurant in the Kingdom. I fondly remember those times when I feasted with friends on freshly-caught hamour straight off the grill from an open-flame barbecue on a sandy Gulf beach. The woodsy smoke and seaside ambiance and occasional crunchy grain of sand added to the special nature of those hamour experiences in ways impossible to replicate within the walled-in confines of a kitchen.

To be scientifically correct, perhaps it would be more accurate were I to write, “Save the hamours!” plural, instead of “Save the hamour!” singular. For, according to a recent study of fish DNA conducted by researchers at New York University Abu Dhabi, over the years three distinct species of grouper— Epinephelus coioides (a.k.a. orange-spotted grouper), Epinephelus bleekeri (a.k.a. Bleeker’s grouper), and Epinephelus areolatus (a.k.a. areolated grouper)—have been indiscriminately lumped together as “hammour,” as being one and the same, in the fish suqs of the Gulf. The good news is, the three species reportedly all taste basically the same—which is to say, delicious. Adding still more mystery to the subject, some people claim that yet another species of genus Epinephelus—the greasy grouper (Epinephelus tauvina), also known as the Arabian grouper—is the true hamour.

Will the real hamour please stand up?

To further muddy the waters, perhaps I should spell “hammour” with two “m’s” instead of one, the same way those NYU researchers have done. And, if I really want to confuse matters, I should take into greater consideration the fact that there are 87 recognized species of the genus Epinephelus—all of them arguably groupers—a select number of them potential claimants to the title of Hamour, King of Arabian Gulf fishes.

So many options! To keep things simple, having made known those caveats, I am going to refer to Gulf hamour in the singular as being one species, not three or four or more, spell the word with one “m,” not two, and ignore those other 80-plus members of genus Epinephelus with no apologies. With those decisions made, let us proceed.

According to that NYU study, Gulf hamour are “(t)hought to be over-fished in the region at six times the sustainable level.” Declining numbers have people worried. Voices are being raised calling for the introduction of better resource management practices.

Gulf states are debating measures aimed at protecting the indigenous hamour population. Based on a recent study’s findings that too many juvenile hamour are presently being harvested prior to females reaching egg-laying age, with potentially devastating effects on the species' long-term survival, the Ministry of Environment and Water of the UAE is considering a ban on harvesting hamour smaller than 43 centimeters (17 inches) in length. Let us hope that reasonable, workable solutions can be found to secure the future of Gulf populations of hamour lest they suffer extinction as prophesied by augurs of environmental doom. Their disappearance would be a catastrophe on a multitude of levels, beginning with the fishermen whose livelihood depends on harvesting hamour.

According to a survey released in 2015, grouper—a crowded taxonomic category that includes all species commonly referred to as hamour—is the third-most-flavorful fish in the world, just ahead of mahi-mahi and wahoo, tied for fourth, and just behind hogfish snapper in second place and bluefin tuna in first. Forget your Copper River salmon and Alaska halibut and Chilean sea bass, your speckled sea trout and yellowfin tuna and Dover sole, your redfish and amberjack and haddock. If you truly want to taste the best in seafood, try grouper or, to be more specific, try its elite subset, the Gulf hamour in whichever of its variations you accept as rightful bearer of that name.

The hamour we all remember from the KSA is decidedly more flavorful than its fellow grouper species found elsewhere in the world. It owes its special savory quality to the exceptional saltiness of the comparatively shallow waters of the Arabian Gulf. Fish that spend their lives swimming in those waters are infused with its salt, adding substantially to their flavor when served on heaping platters to swarms of hungry Aramcons. Were genuine Gulf hamour, not run-of-the-mill grouper caught elsewhere, pitted separately head-to-head against hogfish snapper and bluefin tuna in a fish tasting contest, I am confident a new world champion of seafood succulence would need to be crowned.

In the past, on my frequent trips to the Halkidiki region of northern Greece, locals there insisted that fish harvested from the surrounding waters of the Aegean Sea were more flavorful than fish caught elsewhere in the world because of the Aegean’s elevated salinity. I have never seen a reliable study that supports their claim, and it doesn’t matter, anyway, because my taste buds have spoken. Gulf hamour are hands-down the guaranteed winners in any piscine taste test, even when matched against Greek pretenders.

On a trip I took some years back to Thailand, ExPat friends treated me to dinner at the renowned Seafood Market and Restaurant in Bangkok’s Sukhumvit District with seating for 1,500 guests, 50 or more chefs at work at any one time, and “If it swims we have it” as its motto. They offer a “Choose-Your-Own-Seafood” option allowing diners to pick whichever seafood item best suits their fancy. They then take their selection to one of the many kitchen stations—each one offering a different style of cooking—and have an expert chef prepare it just the way they like it: fried or broiled, roasted or steamed, baked or raw, powerfully or subtly spiced or somewhere in between, all according to their specific instructions. Inspired by the thought of tasting hamour for the first time in what seemed like forever, I found a counter featuring familiar-looking grouper the fishmonger insisted were genuine hamour harvested from the Arabian Gulf the previous day. After a brief hesitation, I decided to take him at his word.

Will the real hamour please stand up?

Uncertain about which style of cooking to choose, I remembered where I was and opted to go Thai, selecting a recipe consisting (as I recall) of a medley of green curry paste, ginger, garlic, coconut milk, coriander, and other choice ingredients. When the man taking my order asked how many stars, from zero to five—the more the stars, the hotter the spices—I decided to forgo my normal fiery four or five and settle for a mild one, a wise choice as it turned out. The hamour I was served that night was delicious, the spices just mild enough not to overwhelm its distinctive taste, yet strong enough to remind me I was in Thailand, where spices are everything. Even so, it was not as scrumptious as the hamour I recalled from my days in the Kingdom. To experience that special delight again, I suppose I shall have to travel to Dhahran for next year’s annuitant gathering and hope that hamour are still a menu option. Until then, I shall just have to be content to relive my hamour memories in my mind.

Once upon a time back in Arabia, I had a favorite recipe for hamour I relied on often when feeding family and friends. Sadly, I have long since misplaced it. Out of curiosity, I went online and did a search on Google for “hamour recipes.” I was rewarded with 218 hits. I then decided to change the spelling and search for “hammour recipes,” wondering if I would get different results using two “m’s” instead of one. Voilà! I did! This time, Google’s algorithms presented me with 513 hits. Overwhelmed by over 800 options, I turned for an answer to the ultimate authority on all matters pertaining to ExPat life in the Kingdom, www.aramcoexpats.com.

Here, then, is a link to what I found: an AramcoExPats article, my memory of which had faded, dating from 15 November 2006 titled “Aramcons Savor Hamour from the Arabian Gulf” and offering three genuine Aramcon recipes for hamour dating from 1953:

Aramcons Savor Hamour

Ordering an exotic fish when dining abroad can be an adventure. I played it safe that night on the town in Thailand by requesting hamour. On a trip a few years earlier to Australia, I made the mistake of being too adventurous in my choice of fish. Acceding to the maître d’s persuasive powers at a posh seafood restaurant in the Sydney Harbour area, ignoring the outrageous price tag, I ordered at his insistence Australian lungfish, a living fossil hailing from the Paleozoic Era some 380 million years ago found only in the Land of Down Under with ancestors predating the earliest known petroleum deposits in Arabia by tens of millions of years. My response to my first bite was unprintable. A grilled slab of shoe leather taken from the sole of my work boots after a day spent mucking out a barn would have tasted better. Need I say more?

Based on that experience, my advice to readers is, if you are ever asked to choose between Australian lungfish and any other seafood item on a menu, choose something else, especially if that something else is hamour or some other species of grouper. Unless that is, you are a fan of the TV show “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” and are accustomed to feasting on such exquisite delicacies as jellied moose nose from Alaska, fruit bat roasted on coconut husks from Samoa and maguey worms from México. Possessing an iron-lined stomach and shock-proof taste buds would also help. If that describes you, have at it, but don’t say you weren’t warned.

Regarding the matter of which species of genus Epinephelus is the true hamour, so far we have identified four candidates for the honor (and for slots as challengers on “To Tell The Truth”): the orange-spotted grouper; Bleeker’s grouper; the areolated grouper; and the greasy or Arabian grouper. In our 2006 article offering hamour recipes, AramcoExPats declared the brown-spotted grouper to be the true hamour while admitting that other species claim the title as well, further compounding the problem. For the brown-spotted grouper is, in fact, an entirely different species altogether—Epinephelus chlorostigma. After so many conflicting revelations, I have a growing fear that if a serious ichthyologist or two happens to read this article, still more candidates will be proposed. Help!

Dear readers, I wish to ask your input. According to your knowledge and experience, is there a single species of grouper that can properly be called a hamour to the exclusion of all others? If so, AramcoExPats would like to know which one and why.

Or, is it inevitable that, in the end, we shall be forced to concede that the word “hamour” is an imprecise catch-all label for salt-infused members of several different grouper species fortunate to call the Arabian Gulf their home waters? Before I give in to that one-size-fits-all concession, however, I should like to hear what those groupers have to say when they are all lined up all in a row in a television studio and asked the ultimate question: “Will the real hamour please stand up?” Reflecting my AramcoExPats loyalties, confessing to a bias, were I a voting member of the ABC panel, my vote would go to Epinephelus chlorostigma, the brown-spotted grouper.

In closing, an AramcoExPats reader named Heath had this to say when he commented on our hamour recipe article from 2006:

“My family recently moved to the KSA and discovered hamour. We had it for dinner for the first time tonight. I looked up what it is and found it is over-fished like tuna and swordfish (I happened to have tuna for lunch, but sustainably caught). One article mentioned that chefs in the UAE who have taken hamour off their menus recommend Snapper, Bream and Sea Bream as alternatives.”

Let us hope that a way will be found that is beneficial to all to save the Gulf hamour. On that issue, all Aramcons can agree.