Escabeche de pescado hits all the right Peruvian food-lover’s spots: crunchily fried fish fillet topped with a relish of yellow chili pepper strips, onion, garlic seasoned with yellow and panca chili peppers and black pepper. All served with a piece of corn, sweet potato and lettuce. You might think that someone dreamt up the recipe for escabeche de pescado as a homage to Peru’s most important chili peppers – yellow chili and panca chili. But the dishes origins actually stem from a tradition from another distant continent.
Time to learn more about this cold dish that won’t leave you cold.
We’ll dish up the exotic origins right away: the word escabeche is a Spanish version of the Arab word sikbaj (pronounced “iskebech”), the term for a traditional way of conserving food using sugar and vinegar. Many Spaniards that arrived in Peru came with their Arab servants who used this method of conserving food. And that’s how the foundation of the recipe made it to Peru. In those days it was very important to use ingenious ways to conserve the food but this method actually also greatly enhances the flavor of the fish or meat.
It’s easy to imagine that these immigrant cooks were eager to experiment with local ingredients. It’s possible that during one of these experiments they decided to use the ubiquitous ají amarillo and its infinitely milder cousin, ají panca, to see what happened. It’s important to note that escabeche is not a very spicy dish – the amount of ají amarillo used is minimal. The ají panca mostly fulfills the task of adding flavor yet not heat, as well as giving the dish its distinctive deep, red tinge. I think the fact that the recipe has survived for so long says enough about just how well the experiment turned out!
One name, two different dishes
Peruvian food is the King of diversity in so many ways, and that trait rears its head here too. The escabeche from this recipe is actually known in Cusco and other mountain regions as “escabeche limeño” (escabeche from Lima). These parts of the country have their own version of the dish which is quite different! If you order escabeche there, you’ll be served a cold, cooked chicken leg with a cooked vegetable salad consisting of cauliflower, peas and carrots heavily marinated in vinegar and black pepper. (It might take some getting used to, but it’s very tasty, and so is the veggie side salad).
The best fish to use for escabeche is Dorado, but any quality white fish that is available in your area with decent-sized fillets and doesn’t flake easily will work well for this dish. We’re offering the recipe for the fish version of escabeche here, but it’s important to know that this method of preparation can also be used for different types of poultry, meat, and seafood.
The chicken version of escabeche is also very popular in homes and restaurants throughout Peru, and top Peruvian restaurants will often feature an innovative version on their menus, served with quinoa or even prepared with algarrobina, syrup from the carob tree.
The dish is served cold and, according to some, tastes even better the day after it was prepared. The flavors of the marinade have had more time to enter the meat. Escabeche is a perfect dish for Peruvian mothers to pop into a lunch box for their loved ones at work or on a journey. The advantage is that there’s no need to heat it up.
Let’s get cooking now to find out why escabeche is so moreish!