All around the Mediterranean, escabeche is a prized method of preserving food, mainly fish, in a two-part process that goes back at least to the medieval Arabs, who brought it to Europe from wherever they found it. Step one is frying the food in olive oil. Step two is immersing it in a vinegar sauce.
The word “escabeche” may be a linguistic ancestor to ceviche, that New World preparation of raw fish “cooked” heatlessly in acid citrus juice. We know that “escabeche” itself goes back to an Arabic original, hispanicized—or catalanized—and written down in Spain in the fourteenth century. In her article on the subject in Petits Propos Culinaires (No. 20, 1985), Barbara Santich refers to a total of four medieval recipes from the Mediterranean region, all with typically medieval sweet-and-sour flavorings, such as almonds, currants, and dates, to balance the vinegar. But escabeche is no antique relic. Venerable, yes, yet still a staple from Barcelona to Istanbul. Put a grave accent on the second e and the same dish is French. In our day, the dish has evolved away from its origins, losing the sweetness but keeping the vinegar.
Actually, escabeche is less an individual dish than a method, a method that can be applied to a whole range of foods other than fish. Here I offer a sumptuous vegetable escabeche. In our day, the dish has evolved away from its origins, with a bit of nutmeg for a hint of its original medieval spicing. The next day—escabeches are meant to be eaten the next day or later on, and they will taste better for the wait—serve it cold, as a first course. Escabeches are ideal for warm weather, the climate they were invented for long ago, when the role of vinegar was much larger than it is now.