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Escabeche refers to an ancient style of cooking meat that ends with a long soaking in vinegar or citrus juice before the dish is served cold. Though originating in Mediterranean countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Spain, the practice has spread as far east as the Philippines and all throughout the western nations of Latin America. Most commonly used with seafood, the hallmark of escabeche is the acidic and often-herbal nature of its marinade, which leaves the meat infused with a tart and even sweet flavor.
The forerunner of escabeche in Spain and all locations abroad is the Arabic dish al-sikbaj, which involves a marinade combining both sweet and acidic elements. This dish uses fish or other proteins like lamb or chicken, along with vegetables like eggplant and onion. After the meat and vegetables are cooked, they simmer in a broth of saffron, cinnamon, figs, raisins, honey and cider or wine vinegar. When cooked through, the dish is eaten either hot or cold.
It is believed that Spain and Portugal were introduced to the al-sikbaj dish during the Moorish conquests between 790 and 1300 AD. Thereafter, as is often the case, new twists abounded. Latin cultures typically used fish for the protein and substituted some of the distinctively Arabic seasonings for a distinctive Hispanic blend.
This escabeche often rests overnight — in the refrigerator to be safe — and then is served cold. After seasoning often-square pieces of seafood like salmon, trout or sea bass with seasonings like paprika, thyme, garlic, bay leaf, salt, pepper, parsley and clove, a blend of vinegar, olive oil and white wine are brought to a simmer in a pan. The fish, often with vegetables like peppers, onion and carrots, is then basted and cooked in this liquid. As soon as the pieces are finished cooking, they can be served with the marinade or refrigerated with it overnight.
Most chefs do not serve escabeche right out of the refrigerator. They instead remove the pieces and marinade from the cool environment, allowing it to warm naturally to room temperature before serving. The marinade is typically drizzled over the top of the meat just before the meal.
Escabeche is presented in a variety of ways. The dish is customarily served on fresh bread with sandwich vegetables like lettuce and tomato slices or as a main dish to accompany a side of rice, potatoes or lentils. Some even use these uniquely flavored pieces to top a large salad. Various cultures have put their own spin on the dish, such as Belize, which turns its escabeche into a sweet and sour chicken soup.