The Vinegared Dish Found 'Round the World

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Juan Alcón


To try this traditional Spanish recipe for vinegar-preserved meat, click here, or click here to view a slide show of the escabeche-making process.

A simple country dish and standard of Spanish home cooking, escabeche turns out to have a history spanning three continents and a couple of millennia.

It started, as so many things seem to, in Persia. Sikbaj, they called it: a way of conserving meat in vinegar, rumored to date all the way back to the kitchens of the Sasanian Empire. Converted to the Arabic iskbech, it shows up in the 1001 Nights as a delicacy with date syrup. Perhaps it galloped across North Africa into Spain, or else sailed across the Mediterranean with a quick stop in Sicily; in any case it shows up in a Catalan recipe book in 1324 as escabetx, and somewhat later in Castillian as escabeje. The basic character remains the same: meat or fish conserved in vinegar with plenty of onions.

The spices vary, but not much. A standard household recipe across much of Spain, it probably crossed the Atlantic with the first wave of Spanish settlers, over time adapting to local ingredients (not much wine vinegar, plenty of limes) and tastes to become ceviche, beloved by beachgoers from Chile to Mexico, and considered part of the national heritage of Peru.

In Spain, lots of different meats are escabechado, or made en escabeche. Perhaps the most classic use of the technique is for small game animals: partridge, quail, or rabbit. For those who don't happen to have ready access to partridge, chicken makes a perfectly acceptable escabeche as well. The technique is also widely used to prepare fish like fresh tuna or sardines.

Escabeche can be served hot as a main dish, or the meat can be shredded and used cold in a salad. Delicious either way. Originally a technique used for conserving meat, escabeche will keep for at least a year if properly canned.

Little wonder the recipe has lasted so long and traveled so far: it's really good. I started tinkering with recipes a month or so ago, and have gotten hooked. Something about the sourness makes you want more.

Recipe: Traditional Escabeche

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Maggie Schmitt is a freelance researcher and translator based in Madrid.  She is currently working on a book called The Gaza Kitchen with Laila El-Haddad. Learn more at gazakitchens.wordpress.com.

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