Food & DrinksPeruvian FoodTraditional Food

From Persia to Inca-ish Peru, Escabeche

Though Persian in origin, escabeche has become thoroughly Peruvian. And in Cuzco it has morphed again, to become Andean.

Served cold, this dish which combines lightly pickled vegetables with pre-cooked meat that also spends time taking on the flavor of the pickling juice was a hit at the recent Cusco Come–Tukuy Mijuy festival in Cuzco and graced the tables of many homes.

Though lightly pickled, the softness of the native vinegar and the time the meat rests in it, in contrast to the vegetables, brings both harmony and separation. Everything on the plate zings with the soft touch of a transforming acid and yet maintains its flavor and self.

Pickles, in the sense of tangy cucumbers that accompany sandwiches in the United States or northern Europe has no equivalent in Spanish. So often people borrow the English word “pickles,” though pronounced in Spanish, to describe them. Sometimes they just call them “little cucumbers’, but the pickles themselves have no equivalent. They are, strong, robust, and sour, sometimes mouth puckering sour.

That is the image the word pickle brings to my mind, anyway, as someone who grew up in an Anglo Frisian home in the United States, sour and tart like pickles or sauerkraut. Pickles, in my tradition, punctuate the other flavors of a meal to bring a contrast, like the sharpness of a good dill pickle against grilled meat in an American home-made hamburger.

As a result the gentle pickling of escabeche has no real equivalent in English, even if the technique is similar and may have common historical roots. Escabeche and pickle, though words that formally speak of the same transformation of food by vinegar into something else, are like twins separated at birth who grew into very different people and generated whole families of difference.

It is not surprising that Peruvians do not even think of pickles–which they discover as they are exposed to American food, especially fast food–as being at all the same as escabeche. Pickles are too strong and too sour. As a result it almost never occurs to them that they might be similar.

Evidently “pickle” as a phrase in English originally did not refer to those sharp cucumbers that Americans so love, but to a process of curing something in a brine bath, often with seasoning. As a result, the original meaning of pickle, as the phrase “to be in a pick|e” suggests, meant spicy or piquant.

However at some point vinegar was introduced and became the dominant means of making pickles when combined with the salty, seasoned bath. The entire idea was transformed. Instead of being like the corning of corned beef, it because something that strongly contrasted with the rest of the meal.

Escabeche, on the other hand, came from Catalonia, once a seafaring nation that dominated much of the Western Mediterranean with its base in Barcelona, and now part of Spain. It stems from the catalan pronunciation of a word for a cooking process and an aesthetic that may have had its origins in Persia and spread westward with Islam in the great outpouring that like a flood covered north Africa and even most of European Iberia in a very short time.

Dan Jurafsky argues:

The story starts in the mid-6th century in Persia. Khosrau I Anushirvan (501-579 CE) was the Shahanshah (“king of kings”) of the Sassanid Persian Empire, which stretched from present-day Armenia, Turkey, and Syria in the west, through Iran and Iraq to parts of Pakistan in the east: This was a wonderful period of Persian civilization. The capital, Ctesiphon, on the banks of the Tigris in Mesopotamia, was perhaps the largest city in the world at the time, famous for its murals and a center of music, poetry and art. Plato and Aristotle were translated into Persian here, and chess was introduced from India. Persia was at the center of the global economy, exporting its own pearls and textiles, and transmitting Chinese paper and silk and Indian spices to Europe. The murals are all gone now, but some of the ruins of Ctesiphon remain:

Ctesiphon is gone, but as we’ll see, Khosrau’s favorite food lives on. He loved a dish of sweet and sour stewed beef called sikbāj, from sik, Persian for “vinegar”, and bā “broth”. Sikbāj must have been amazingly delicious, because it was a favorite of kings and concubines for at least 300 years, and celebrated in story after story. In one story, Khosrau sponsored an early version of Iron Chef, sending each of his many cooks into a different kitchen to prepare their favorite dish. When it came time to compare the dishes and choose the best one, it turned out all the chefs had made sikbāj!

A few hundred years later, the new Muslim Abbasid dynasty established its capital very near Ctesiphon (in a former market town called Baghdad), hiring chefs who knew how to cook sikbāj . The dish became the favorite of the new rulers, like Harun al-Rashid (the Caliph of One Thousand and One Nights), and Harun al-Rashid’s recipe and others are given in the oldest surviving Arab cookbook, Kitāb al-Tabīkh, (The Book of Cookery) , compiled by Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq c. 950-1000 CE.

Jurafsky continues to argue that escabeche with fish, instead of the Persian and Arabic meat, became common among sailors in the Mediterranean

Quoting Marta Sabater, Jurafsky argues the word escabeche came into Spanish from a Catalonian cookbook translated into Spanish in 1525, Master Robert’s Llibre del coc.

While this maybe the case, I have my doubts and will need to look much more closely at the history. The date of publication in Spanish is too close to the date the Spanish arrived in Peru.   So I expect the dish also came by more conventional means to the Spanish speaking world.

Sailors brought the dish to Peru, where it is primarily made either of fish or fowl, though one can use other meats. But, Hispano-Arabic culture was important in Peru. You can see it in Cuzco in the architecture the Spaniards built on Inca foundations and walls. It is especially visible in the many wooden balconies that have a Moorish flair.

As a result, though the maritime origin was probably critical, as in many other things that came to the new world, one should not discount, without better proof , the possibility of it having a broader base in Spanish Moorish culture that, like the architecture of Cuzco, was important in the new world.

This combination of Persian, maritime, and Moorish is visible and–more importantly–tastable in escabeche today. The vinegar is not the distilled vinegar of concentrated flavor used in American pickles or Germanic and Slavic roots, but is a less concentrated and gentler vinegar, more like the white wine vinegar Americans are increasingly coming to know for dressing salads.

Jarofsky does note that escabeche was important for times when, because of religious devotion and social custom, Christians did not eat meat, such as on Fridays and Lent. As a result, it was prominent in the Culinary Festival held last week in Cuzco.

Perú’s leading daily, El Comercio, reported that more than 12,000 people attended the event in the Cusqueña Brewery’s Beer Garden. And, they say — in a fit for numbers — that some 38,000 portions of food were sold among which 900 plates of escabeche of chicken were consumed. The event and the pickled dish from the Middle East were a success.

Doña Mercedes called and said she was bringing us some escabeche of chicken for lunch. She warned us not to eat anything else. A little before noon, she and her son Brayan, appeared, with a big pot wrapped in cloth. She carefully dished up a plate of escabeche, in which she placed a boiled potato, part of an ear of white corn, a pickled chicken leg, and pickled vegetables that included cauliflower, green beans, red peppers, onions, and carrots, which she topped with parsley.

Following the tradition of Cuzco, she had claimed this dish and made it part of an Andean tradition.

The cannon of escabeches involves pickling, red color, and onions. But here it was made detailed and varied with the different vegetables of different colors not unlike the combinations of local Cuzco hand-woven cloth. Together they speak to a specific aesthetic in which oppositions are joined in contrast and unity. They do not lose their value but only merge in the context of a cloth at various meeting points.

Chicken Escabeche, Cuzco
Escabeche as Originally Presented

Doña Mercedes said that the vegetables she had cooked the night before so they would have a longer time in the vinegar mixture, while the chicken she had only cooked that morning and so it had a much shorter time in the bath.

Doña Mercedes paired this joining of a complex and colorful mixture of pickled vegetables with less pickled and whitish chicken, in one dualism. She then joined that with another, corn and potato that is symbolic of Cuzco and the meeting of highlands and valleys. She served the dish with flat-leaf parsley on top, something raw to contrast again with the rest and make another dualism.

In another potentially significant metaphor, to serve the dish she covered the chicken with the vegetables, and located the corn and potato to the side.  This covering of the flesh, like wrapping it in cloth, may be very significant as a way Andean peoples appropriated foreign persons, if Denise Arnold is correct.   To take pictures, we both unwrapped, restaurant style, to show the chicken and left wrapped, home style, to show the original presentation.

Escabeche with the Chicken Unwrapped, Cuzco
Escabeche with the Chicken Unwrapped

It was delicious. Each vegetable, though slightly tart merged the sweetness and individual flavor of each vegetable with the mild vinegar. The chicken had an earthy flavor of a mature hen (Brayan noted that it was a hen Doña Mercedes had raised in her home over the last year) at the same time it had a sweetness and tang.

Though the dish may have originated in the courts of ancient Persia, it is Peruvian today. Other countries do it differently in Latin America, though it also came to them in a similar fashion. And, in Cuzco, it has become a dish that joins a Persian technique with an Andean aesthetic and sensibility. But, in any case, it is simply wonderful.

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