A Bit of History: The Origin of Escabeche–
Trying to discover the history of a dish, it is very common to trace the history of its name, the etymology. In Spain, and Spanish, Mr. Corominas is the father of any etymology, so we turn to him to know where escabeche (pickling brine) is from.
This term comes from Arabic iskabej -it sounds obvious, regarding the amount of spices that dress the dish- and iskabej comes from Persian, because the dish appears on the menus of One Thousand and One Nights.
But Corominas takes it to his side. He puts a bit of Catalonian in this etymology, the pair –ch, because the usual evolution in Spanish should have been escabeje or escabel. But it doesn’t mean that the dish was born in Sabadell, for example, as some people say, but the normalization of the term was based on Catalonian Medieval recipe books –as the Llibre del Coch, by Mestre Robert de Noia-, which were pioneers of European gastronomic writing.
Considering that language (and literature) is a reflection of life, we can know the evolution of a concrete practice by following the evolution of a word. So, if we look back to the origing of the word escabeche, we will arrive almost at the origin of the civilization, the cradle of the Neolithic and the preserving practices that allow human being to overcome the alimentary right-here-right-now.
Pickling, as well as its cousins, marinades, is based on the use of an acidic medium (mostly vinegar) to avoid putrefaction. But, differently from marinades, food for pickling is previously cooked.
Spanish version is defined by the use of olive oil for frying this food (some people boil it, but the result is not as good as frying), and use different spices to make it tasty, mainly black pepper, bay, saffron and/or paprika.
As the Spanish culinary writer Capel says, European historic recipe books, as Alexandre Dumas’ Dictionary of Cuisine, give a Spanish origin to escabeche. And nothing can be more Spanish than this subsistence cuisine, that allows to take advantage of the abundance and low cost of seasonal produces, preserving them for days and eating them cold, wherever and whenever.
Nowadays, with all our fridges, microwaves, thermomixes and so on, preserving is just an anecdote, although it doesn’t take taste from one of the more versatile and typical dishes of our cuisine.
A Bit of Practice: Cooking and Eating Escabeche–
For a good escabeche you just need whatsoever, a good oil, vinegar and spices. Whatsoever can be meat, fish or vegetables, but always fried in a good olive oil. Here in Extremadura you can find escabeche made of vegetables (courgettes, beans, string beans, eggplants…), game meat, chicken, rabbit, sardines or river fishes.
Regarding to vinegar, any wine vinegar is appropriated for an escabeche made of game meat or fish, because a more aromatic one takes the chief role. On the contrary, vegetables and chicken ask for a good Sherry Vinegar.
About spices, they change according to cooks’ mood and preferences: there are as many escabeches as cooks. But if you have any doubt, you always can look up for a recipe on the Internet, where you can find plenty of them.
There are also some tricks for eating. First of all, you should use a spoon: the sour juice is part of the dish. Second, but not less important, let it rest for a day before eating. And finally, to make it perfect, you should eat it cold, a hot summer night, in La Tertulia.
Escabeches are a classic dish of la Tertulia summer menu. Defined by frying in batter and by the mix of vinegar and bay with toast garlic and saffron plus some orange slices, the result is a dish where technique is an excuse for enjoying a soft mix of aroma and taste. This summer we suggest escabeche made of courgettes from El Raposo or Sardines in pickling brine.
And for drinking, a cold beer, because the bitternes of beer make the taste of pickling strong.