Thursday, November 26, 2009

Ceviche and Fish & Chips

You can always get a good argument going in San Francisco by asking people for their favorite taqueria. Personally, I lean toward the carnitas tacos (accompanied by a strawberry agua fresca) at La Taqueria on Mission and 25th, but I'm not completely immune to the charms of the el pastor served by the famous El Tonayense taco trucks.

But tacos aren't alone in their ability to incite the kind of fierce foodie fanaticism in San Francisco that seems in other countries to be reserved for local soccer teams. Each tamale vendor, huarache stand, and pupuseria also has their fervent backers. And lately you can start a pretty brisk discussion among my friends by asking where to find the best ceviche, the fish or seafood marinated in lime that's the national dish of Peru. Of course Peruvians have been in San Francisco since the 1850s, when what's now called Jackson Square at the southern foot of Telegraph Hill was called Little Chile and was filled with the Chileans, Peruvians, and Sonorans drawn by the gold rush. But lately there's been a gush of new Peruvian restaurants, making for numerous opportunities for competing ceviches (or seviches or cebiches).

What is ceviche? The Royal Spanish Academy's Diccionario de la Lengua Española tells us that cebiche is:

Plato de pescado o marisco crudo cortado en trozos pequeños y preparado en un adobo de jugo de limón o naranja agria, cebolla picada, sal y ají.
[A dish of raw fish or seafood diced and prepared in a marinade of lime or sour orange juice, diced onion, salt and chili.]

In Peru, ceviche is often made with aji amarillo (Peruvian yellow chili), and served with corn and potatoes or sweet potatoes:

It's nice that Peru has a national dish. It's not clear that we have one here in America since, after all, what's great about America is that everyone who came here showed up with their food and started right in on cooking it for everyone else. So if we do have a national food, it's probably something borrowed, like ketchup, which as I pointed out earlier comes from China or Vietnam. Or perhaps it's hamburgers, frankfurters, or french fries, but of course linguistically speaking the immigrant status of those three is right there in their names (Germany, Germany, and, well, Belgium, but that's pretty close).

Now, as it happens, this Thanksgiving week I'm in London, where instead of fighting over tacos and ceviche, people argue about the best place for fish and chips. Here's my supper last night, from a place my friends Matt and Anna took me to in Dalston:

Fish and chips are as authentically British as ceviche is Peruvian. But it turns out that these "national dishes" of Britain and Peru are immigrants too, or more accurately fusion dishes. French fries, the "chips" of "fish and chips", are Belgian, and came to England only in the mid-19th century. And the "fish", deep-fried battered fish, turns out to be a cousin to ceviche; both of them, as well as some other well-known foods that'll we'll get to, are the direct descendents of the favorite dish of the Shahs of Persia more than 1500 years ago.

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 "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. Here's the recipe that al-Warrāq gives as the original Persian version eaten by Khosrau:

Meat Stew with Vinegar (sikbāj)
[Khosrau's 6th century Persian recipe as given by Al-Warruq, slightly shortened by me from Nawal Nasrallah's new translation]

Wash 4 pounds of beef, put in a pot, cover with sweet vinegar, and boil until almost done.

Then pour out the vinegar, add 4 pounds of lamb, cover again with fresh vinegar, and boil again.

Now clean and disjoint a chicken and add it to the pot, along with fresh watercress, parsley, and cilantro in equal amounts, as well as a few snips of rue and 20 citron leaves. Boil until the meat is almost cooked. Discard the greens.

Clean 4 plump chicks and add them whole to the meats in the pot. Bring to a boil. Add 3 ounces of ground coriander, 1 ounce of whole garlic cloves (threaded onto toothpicks) and cook until everything is done.

Add honey or sugar syrup (use a quarter the amount of vinegar you used), 6 grams ground saffron, and 2 grams ground lovage. Stop feeding the fire and let the pot simmer until it stops bubbling. Serve.

Very quickly, sikbāj moved around the Islamic world, perhaps because it seems to have been a favorite dish of sailors. The story is told that Caliph al-Mutawakkil (9th century CE) was once sitting with his courtiers and singers on a terrace overlooking one of the canals of Baghdad when he smelled a delicious sikbāj stew cooking on a nearby ship. The Caliph ordered the pot to be brought to him, and enjoyed the sikbāj so much that he returned the pot to the sailor filled with money.

It's possible that it was these sailors that first started making sikbāj with fish instead of meat. The first mention of a fish sikbāj is in The Book of the Wonders of India, a set of stories collected by a Persian sea captain, Burzug Ibn Shahriyah, fantastical tales about the Muslim and Jewish sea-merchants that were trading between the Muslim (Abbasid) Empire, India, and China. In one story set in 912 CE, a Jewish merchant, Isaac bin Yehuda, returns to Oman with a gift for the ruler: a beautiful black porcelain vase. "I have brought you a dish of sikbāj from China", said Isaac, and opened the vase to show it was full of fish made out of gold, with ruby eyes, surrounded by musk of the first quality. Perhaps these golden fish looked something like this:

This tells us that already by the 10th century sikbāj could be made of fish. An actual recipe for these fish sikbāj come somewhat later. The first one seems to be in a medieval Egyptian cookbook in the 13th century. sikbāj now is fried fish dredged in flour and then sauced with vinegar with honey and spices:

Fish sikbāj, Egypt, 13th century

Provide yourself with some fresh fish, vinegar, honey, atraf tib [spice mix], pepper, onion, saffron, sesame oil, and flour.

Wash the fish and cut it into pieces then fry in the sesame oil after dredging in flour. When ready, take out of the pan.

Slice onion and brown it in the sesame oil.

Crush pepper and atraf tib in mortar. Dissolve the saffron in vinegar and honey and add. When sauce is ready, pour over the fish.

[Translation from Lilia Zaouali's wonderful book Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World]

The recipe continued to move westward along the Mediterranean, the name and the recipe metamorphosing as it did so. Over the next century, the word seems to cling to the cliffs and beaches along the Mediterranean as, from Sicily, it climbs north up the Tyrrenian coast of Italy and then west through Provence in the south of French and finally to the coast of Catalunya. In Italy we see the word in the dialects from Sicilian (schibbeci), to Neapolitan (scapece), to Genoese (scabeccio). By the fourteenth century there are recipes for scabeg, written in Occitan, the medieval language spoken in Provence, and for escabetx in Catalan, the Romance language spoken in what is now northeastern Spain and southwestern France.

In all these areas the word refers to a fried fish dish. For example, a Catalan cookbook of the early 1300s, the Book of Sent Soví (Saint Sofia), has a recipe called Si fols fer escabetx, "If you want to make escabeche", that describes fried fish made into minced fishballs and served cold with a sauce made of onions in vinegar and spices.

By contrast, aside from that one exceptional Egyptian fish recipe, Arabic cookbooks from both ends of the Muslim world in the 13th century, the Kitab al-tabikh of al-Baghdadi, from Baghdad in the east and the Manuscrito anónimo from Andalusia (Muslim Spain) in the west, (both translated by Charles Perry), give only meat recipes for the dish. In the Muslim regions, sikbāj is still a meat stew with vinegar.

Why did sikbāj change to become a fish dish, but only (or mainly) in the Romance languages along the Mediterranean? The key difference of course is that the speakers of these languages were Christians. Christians at the time didn't eat meat during Lent, nor on Wednesdays or Fridays, and cookbooks had separate sections full of fish recipes for these 'fast' periods. Even as late as 1651, the famous French cookbook of La Varenne, The French Cook, is divided into three sections: Meat recipes, Lent recipes, and `lean' recipes for non-Lenten fast days like Fridays.

Another Christian borrowing of the sikbāj stew took a different form. In the 14th century Arabic cookbooks and medical texts were translated into Latin and, as Italian scholar Anna Martellotti shows us, the full name al-sikbāj began to be transcribed as assicpicium. At this period medical texts often focused on the medicinal qualities of broths, and these Latin medical texts focus on the broth of the sikbāj, which at this point was generally eaten cold. The vinegary broth of such a cold stew broth when chilled results in what Charles Perry calls a "tart jelly". Assicpicium, of course, became the word aspic, still our modern word for a cold jellied broth.

If sikbāj was still a meat dish in Muslim Andalusia in the 13th century, when did Spanish adopt the dish of fried fish in vinegar and onions, and the word escabeche to describe it? They borrowed it after the Reconquista from Catalan. The word seems to have first occurred in Spanish in 1525, when another Catalan cookbook, Master Robert's Llibre del coc, was translated into Spanish. This cookbook was the source of many new Spanish terms borrowed from Catalan, as Marta Sabater's dissertation shows, particularly seafood and other gastronomic terms, and I think the new Spanish word escabeche was probably one of them. Thus escabeche came to Spanish from Catalan, which acquired it from its neighbor, Occitan, who got it from the Genoese, who stole it from the Neapolitans, and so on, back eventually east to the Arabic of Baghdad and the Persian of Ctesiphon.

Modern escabeche is a popular food throughout Spanish, Latin America, and the Phillipines. Fish (or chicken or or vegetables like carrots) is fried and then soaked in vinegar with onions, bay leaves, salt, and so on.

Once it arrived in Spain, sikbāj moved rapidly to the new world. In 1532-3, Francisco Pizarro González, the Spanish conquistador from Estramedura in Spain, led the army that conquered Peru. Peru and its neighboring regions are the home of many foods (like potatoes) but the indigenous coastal groups like the Moche lived off fish and molluscs such as snails. The Mexican Gutíerrez de Santa Clara (1522-1603), one of Pizzaro's soldiers, reported that:

"los indios desta costa pescan (...) y todo el pescado que toman en el río, o en la mar, se lo comen crudo..."
[the coastal Indians fish... and all the fish they take from the river or the sea, they eat them raw.]

Local lore in Peru suggests that the Moche flavored this raw fish with chile. Modern ceviche (fish, lime juice, onions, chile, salt) is thus probably a mestizo dish that incorporates chile and raw fish from the Moche's tradition, and onions and limes from the Spanish escabeche. Most scholars (such as Peruvian historian Juan José Vega and the Royal Spanish Academy's Diccionario de la Lengua Española ) believe that the word ceviche thus derives from a shortening of escabeche, although we may never know for sure -- the word doesn't appear in writing until almost 300 years later in an 1820 song, spelled sebiche.

Where did the citrus come from? Citrus fruits (limes, lemons, sour oranges) were brought to the New World by the Spanish, as well. While modern escabeche uses vinegar rather than citrus, earlier recipes used either or both, as we can see from the definition in an early Spanish dictionary, the 1732 edition of the Real Academia Española's "Diccionario de la lengua castellana":

Escabeche. A kind of sauce and marinade, made with white wine or vinegar, bay leaves, cut lemons, and other ingredients, for preserving fish and other delicacies.

Something else happened at the same time as the Spanish conquistadors departure for the New World: Spain and Portugal expelled its Jews. These Sephardic Jews left Portugal and Spain, many of them settling in Holland. Within the next century, England had rescinded its own ban on Jews, and many of these Sephardim emigrated there in the 17th and 18th century. There they brought escabeche and its close relative, pescado frito, a similar dish of fried fish eaten cold with vinegar, but in which the fish was battered before being fried.

Culinary history and Arabic scholar Charles Perry points out that the origins of this pescado frito variant was called mu'affar in Muslim Spain. By 1796, a cold battered fried fish with vinegar that seems to have combined the two dishes appeared in Britain in Hannah Glasse's The art of cookery, made plain and easy. She called this dish, battered and fried fish soaked in vinegar and served cold, "The Jews Way of preserving Salmon, and all Sorts of Fish":

Take either salmon, cod, or any large fish, cut off the head, wash it clean, and cut it in slices as crimped cod is, dry it very well in a cloth, then flour it, and dip it in yolks of eggs, and fry it in a great deal of oil till it is of a fine brown and well done; take it out, and lay it to drain till it is very dry and cold. ... have your pickle ready, made of the best white wine vinegar; when it is quite cold pour it on your fish, and a little oil on the top; the will keep good a twelvemonth, and are to be eat cold with oil and vinegar: they will go good to the East Indies.

This final note in Glasse's recipe helps explain why this dish originated as a favorite of sailors and why it spread so quickly up the coasts of the Mediterraean: it was made of an ingredient readily available at sea (fish) and kept well for long periods.

By the early 19th century, the Jews begin selling this cold fried fish in the streets of London. In Oliver Twist, first serialized in 1838, Dickens talks of the fried-fish warehouses of London's East End:

Confined as the limits of Field Lane are, it has its barber, its coffee-shop, its beer-shop, and its fried-fish warehouse. It is a commercial colony of itself: the emporium of petty larceny.

In 1852, a Times of London reporter covering a story on London's Great Synagogue complained of being forced to pass through strange Jewish alleys " impregnated with the scents of fried fish".

The 1846 A Jewish Manual, the first Jewish cookbook in English, written by Lady Judith Cohen Montifiore, gives a similar recipe to Glasse's, and distinguishes between Jewish fried fish and "English fried fish"; the difference was that English recipes don't encase the fish in batter (it's just topped with bread crumbs) and they fry it in butter rather than oil.

Roughly the same fried fish recipe, eaten cold with vinegar, is still considered "Jewish" as late as 1855 in Alexis Soyer's Shilling cookery for the people:

By the middle 19th century, potatoes fried in drippings came to London, probably from the north of England. Modern fish and chips arose at the latest by 1860, as Ashkenazi Jews began to move into London and integrate Sephardic foods and customs, and one of the earliest known fish and chips shops was opened by Ashkenazi Jewish proprietor Joseph Malin, combining the new fried potatoes with Jewish fried fish, and serving everything warm rather than cold.

I'll leave you with a final piece of visual evidence; at the old-fashioned chippie that Matt and Anna took me to, you can also choose to have your fish battered in matso meal batter, from the pulverized matzos that Jewish mothers like mine still uses as a breading. (It wasn't until my twenties that I realized that matso was not a main ingredient in other people's mothers' recipes for veal parmesan.) Here's our fried haddock from last nite, made with the slightly crumbier matso batter:

Well, I suppose I'd better sum up, since it's now Thanksgiving and time to turn from sikbāj to turkey (the linguistic origins of which I'll save for another day).

It seems that it's not just melting-pot America whose favorite foods come from somewhere else. This family of dishes that are claimed by many nations as cultural treasures (ceviche in Peru and other countries in South America, fish and chips in Britain, escabeche in Spain, aspic in France) were invented by the (Zoroastrian) Persians, borrowed by the Muslims, adapted to fish by the Christians, brought to the New World by the Spanish and to England by the Jews.

I'd like to think that the lesson here is that we are all immigrants, that no culture is an island, that beauty is created at the confusing and painful boundaries between cultures and peoples and religions. That's the wonder and joy and innocence of the Thanksgiving myth that people from different and antagonistic cultures and nations once brought the foods of their nations and sat down to dinner together.

I guess we can only look forward to the day when the battles we fight are about nothing more significant than where to go for tacos.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.