Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Origins of Ceviche, Tempura and Fish & Chips

Consider some of the most popular seafood dishes from all around the world, such as Ceviche from Peru, Shrimp Tempura from Japan and Fish & Chips from Britain. You probably wouldn't suspect that they actually had a common origin, in a 1500 year-old Persian meat stew.

As I mentioned recently, I've been immersed in a fascinating new book, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky. The book explains and expounds upon various food-related words, as well as examining the role of words in everything from menus to restaurant reviews. It is part history and science, psychology and etymology. If you love food, it is an excellent read, one which will intrigue and interest you, as well as make you think of food in different ways. I highly recommend this book and I'm back discussing issues raised in the book.

In one of the chapters, From Sikbaj to Fish and Chips, Jurafsky explores the origins of several popular seafood dishes, and that history extends back to 6th century Persia. At that time, Khosrau I Anushirvan, the Shahanshah (“ the king of kings”) of the Sassanid Persian empire, loved a meat stew known as sikbaj. Sikbaj, which derives from the Persian word sik which means "vinegar,"  is basically a dish of sweet & sour stewed beef.  The exact recipe for sikbaj differed from cook to cook, though the common denominator was that the stew was flavored by herbs and preserved with lots of vinegar. Along with beef, chicken and lamb weee sometimes added, but seafood wasn't a component.

The Sassanid empire eventually fell and by 750, the Islamic Abbasid caliphate was established in the former Persian areas of Mesopotamia.  The Abbasids hired Persian chefs and they too embraced sikbaj and there is even a recipe for it in the oldest surviving Arabic cookbook. This dish spread across the Islamic world, and it is thought sailors helped to spread its popularity.

In addition, it is believed that sailors, by the 10th century, were the first to alter the recipe, and starting making sikbaj with seafood. Seafood was more readily available to the sailors and they learned to adapt dishes so they could use what they possessed. Sikbaj continued to spread west, to the Mediterranean and Europe, where the dish was altered a bit once again, but those regions also generally embraced seafood as its main ingredient.

Seafood, used to make sikbah, became popular because the dishes were being created in port cities, where fishing was a significant industry. In addition, because many of these European countries were Christian, seafood was important because of all the religious holidays which prohibited the consumption of meat. The biggest change in sikbaj was that sometimes they used fried fish rather than raw, and the dishes were generally eaten cold. Vinegar remained an important component, helping to preserve their food.

During the 16th century, when the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizzaro and his soldiers invaded Peru, they brought numerous foods with them, such as onions and citrus fruits, as well as their own version of sikbaj, known as escabeche.. The indigenous Moche already made a raw fish dish with chile, but over time, this dish would be influenced by the Spanish, with the addition of citrus and onions, leading to the creation of ceviche. Ceviche remains a very popular dish today, and its basics haven't really changed in hundreds of years, though some chefs continue to experiment with variations.

On another continent, a similar activity was taking place, the spread of an Iberian dish which was embraced by a different culture. The Portuguese, who traveled to Japan as missionaries and traders, brought their own version of sikbaj, called pescado frito, a fried fish, to Japan. Japan was already a huge consumer of seafood and they embraced this new method of preparation, which became known to them as tempura. Tempura has become so entwined with Japan that many don't realize its origins lay in Portugal, and actually even further back to Persia.

Both Portugal and Spain believed Jews were causing problems in their countries so they expelled them, and the Jews needed to resettle elsewhere. They brought variations of sikbaj with them, including when some settled in Britain. The Jews seemed to prefer the fried fish dishes, with vinegar, and they soon became popular in Britain as well. During the mid-19th century, fried potatoes started to appear in London, and Jews started pairing fried fish and chips, though making the fish warm rather than cold. They caught on so that fish & chips is considered a basic British dish.

All of this history is illustrative of not only the popularity of seafood, but how travel, exploration and trade have spread recipes and dishes across the world. Those recipes and dishes have underwent change during their travels, sometimes until their origins are no longer known by the average consumer. With the greater connectivity of our world now,hopefully more ideas about seafood can spread more quickly across the globe.

Maybe we can embrace sustainable seafood which may be eaten in Asia but which is rarely eaten in the U.S. Maybe we can share recipes for lesser known seafood which will entice more people to consume those fish. Learning the lessons of the past can pave a path to the future.

"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. 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 ceviche."
--Dan Jurafsky

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