Another fantastic post from Dan at The Language of Food; he takes us from “a dish of sweet and sour stewed beef called sikbāj, from sik, Persian for ‘vinegar’, and ‘broth’,” which “must have been amazingly delicious, because it was a favorite of kings and concubines for at least 300 years” (I want some!), through escabeche—and the perhaps cognate ceviche—and the Sephardim, who brought their pescado frito with them when they returned to England after a centuries-long ban, to the English adoption of “Fried Fish, Jewish Fashion” and the fish and chips we know today. A great read, and I love his conclusion:

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 tacos.



  1. Buell and Anderson’s A Soup for the Qan describes the international cuisine of the Mongol Emperors. I’ve only glanced at it but it’s a fascinating book. ~$350, alas.

  2. David Marjanović says

    Vinegar is, it goes without saying, not delicious. The best thing to make of beef is Tafelspitz.
    However, at least the basic idea was right: beef must be cooked, not fried.

  3. Bacon doughnuts? Fixed-gear bicycles? What is a fixed-gear bicycle? That’s a blog worth following.
    Austrians are damn good in the kitchen and so I respect your judgment, Daff, but malt vinegar on chips is by far the best way.

  4. komfo,amonan says

    Our man neglects escoveitched fish of Jamaica, so I will mention it, along with the Jamaican restaurant around the corner which closed a few months back, where I used to get the ackee & codfish a couple times a week until the alarming failure of the ackee crop one year (1999?). I assume the ackee crop has recovered, but I stopped eating Jamaican food for no clear reason.
    Their escoveitched fish was pdgood.

  5. I love the guy’s attitude towards the internet from his course syllabus:

    * Blog: You will need to set up a blog at Everyone will be posting their weekly homeworks and their final papers to their blogs, so if you already have a blog, set up a separate one for the course….
    *Homeworks: The homework for this class is to post blog entries. Entries must be posted at least weekly, but more often is of course better! Your entries can be inspired by your thoughts on the readings, or could be a study you did on something you found outside of class, perhaps with some data and analysis. In some cases I’ll actually give you some topics I’d like you to consider in your blog entries. I expect you to comment at least occasionally on each others homeworks!…
    * Determination of final grade:
    o 33%: your blog entries (and your comments on others blogs)

    I may be dating myself here, but some of our professors talked overhead projectors and freaked out a little when we wanted to do our presentations in powerpoint from a flash drive.
    I notice “homeworks” here appears to be a count noun; do I detect a Britishism?

  6. sikbāj is actually one of my favorite dishes!

  7. Charles Perry says

    The history of sikbaj is fascinating — glittering Oriental color, vast sweeps of history, etc. I’ve always loved it.
    But I’m skeptical of the ability of (e)scabeche to turn into ceviche. In his Diccionario Critico y Etimologico de la Lengua Castellana, Juan Corominas connects ceviche with cebo “bait, chum.” (I’m not quite convinced by that etymology either. Is there a Spanish suffix -iche?)
    Corominas also observes that Castillian must have borrowed escabeche from the Catalan escabeig and not directly from the Arabic sikbaj, or it would have ended up something like escabej. The Catalan connection explains how the word got to Sicily and Provence (and later the Caribbean, where the Jamaicans pronounce it scovetch; “Spanish” settlers in the New World were mostly Catalans and Basques).
    BTW, it’s nice to see myself being cited as an authority in a post that LH links to.

  8. Charles Perry says

    John, right now Buell and Anderson are preparing a new edition of A Soup for the Qan. Supposedly it’s going to be cheaper (if the new publisher expects to sell a single copy).

  9. I notice “homeworks” here appears to be a count noun; do I detect a Britishism?
    My money is on nonce countification, given the laid-back context. It sure isn’t an Irishism. In my day we called homework “ekka”, from “exercises”. We were cool, we were.

  10. beef must be cooked, not fried
    DM: Let’s explore that statement.
    In my dialect, the verb “cook” has a broad range of meaning: any kind of food preparation by heating. So frying counts as cooking.
    I’m guessing that by “cooked” you mean cooked in water: stewed or boiled. But that’s just a guess, and if it’s right it leaves out some other standard options: roasted in an oven, grilled on a rack over an open flame. If I cook a steak on a hot skillet with no added fat, do you call that fried?
    I have the impression that, as “cook” is the broadest term of this kind in English, maybe “braten” is the broadest in German, but not as broad. “Kochen” seems to refer specifically to watery cooking. I’ve been a bit hazy on what “braten” can cover.

  11. It’s a commonplace that fish’n’chips has been displaced as the British national dish by chicken tikka masala. This was even stated in the “facts about the UK” booklet the Foreign Office recently withdrew as being outdated.
    Most of the chippers in Dublin are run by Italians. (Few of the Italian restaurants are.)
    Vinegar is, it goes without saying, not delicious.
    Not on fish, I would agree, but vinegarized is the only way to eat chips. You know what they put on chips in America instead of vinegar? Ketchup. I seen em do it man.

  12. Ketchup has vinegar in it.

  13. So, I just popped over to the WiPe article on french fries in an idle quest for some info about sauce preferences around the world. Boy, does this article need editing.
    The first sentence of the Etymology section reads:
    The phrase means potatoes fried in the French sense of the verb “to cook”, which can mean either sautéing or deep-grease frying.
    But what really intrigued me was this:
    Professor Paul Ilegems, curator of the Friet-museum in Antwerp, Belgium, believes that Saint Teresa of Ávila fried the first chips

  14. Vinegar is not only delicious, it’s a required addition to any Chinese dumpling. And what about balsamic vinegar? That’s great too.

  15. no culture is an island
    If you can’t step in the same river twice, you can’t step in it once.

  16. The Language of Food blog has a history of ketchup.

  17. “I notice “homeworks” here appears to be a count noun; do I detect a Britishism?” Not in my experience – homework was one and indivisible. Many of my father’s generation, however, called it “prep”.

  18. What about the virtues of chips with mayonnaise, a la Benelux ? Best chips I ever ate, ever, were from a fryer in Haarlem, near the Groote Kerk.

  19. Perhaps the teacher was Chinese and was overcorrecting for the Chinese lack of plurals. I have known a fair number of Chinese who do the opposite, refuse to bother with the English plurals, rtc., and I’ve come to agree with them. I’ve even applied their method to my study of German.
    How often do you need to know whether a noun is plural, anyway? Usually the context tells you, or in the case of the subject of the sentence, the verb. When you do, you can just look up the noun and find the plural form.

  20. Dearie,
    Was he at prep school?
    Because I thought I had learnt that “prep” was the preferred term for work to be done outside of classroom hours for those who don’t actually go home – children boarding at their schools. Have I got that wrong? In David Lodge’s “Home Truths” the fact that a woman refers to “prep” is evidence that she did not attend a state school. I think.

  21. The best chips are deep-fried in lard, or beef dripping: I believe (but I’m prepared to be corrected) that this is because you can achieve a higher temperature, and get better Maillard reactions.
    As for homework: it’s a mass noun in all the varieties of BritEng I know. My (1960s) grammar school (that is, state-run selective school) liked to call it “prep”, but that was because it fancied itself: it also had a Latin grace before school lunch. So it’s not 100 per cent true to say that state schools did not talk about “prep”.

  22. rootlesscosmo says

    There’s a Sicilian preparation of chopped stewed onions to which are added vinegar (sometimes mixed with wine and/or vincotto), raisins or currants, toasted pine nuts, cinnamon, and cloves; this is used as a dressing for grilled sardines or other cooked food (e.g. fried slices of butternut squash.) The resulting dishes, served at room temperature, are said to be “in saor.” Is there a sikbaj connection here?

  23. Not this American. What belongs on potatoes is salt, period, and plenty of it. None of this vinegar, ketchup, butter, sour cream, or other contaminants.

  24. And only sissies cook them.

  25. i also eat fried potatoes with salt and black pepper only

  26. And only sissies cook them.
    No, but only sissies peel them.

  27. not that plenty, i just dip them into salt and black pepper on the plate, so overall amount i believe is not that much

  28. but if it’s boiled or baked in the ashes potatoes, i peel them and eat with butter or salt or mayo

  29. the best of course is just home made fried potatoes, fried not in the hot oil, but on the frying pan with little oil or butter with onions and meat

  30. Lots of butter, salt and better. The butter is to preclude accusations of dieting, an ever-present threat these days.

  31. JE: for “better” read “butter” again?
    Onions are good with potatoes, but I don’t consider them a condiment, rather an equal participant in a more complex dish of potatoes-and-onions.

  32. “Pepper”. My fingers transform words on their own. “*e**er”.

  33. read, try fried potatoes – or baked, boiled (only), or mashed – with sour cream.

  34. sour cream or zöökhii is practically our national food, so, of course, i’ve tried potatoes with sour cream too, just prefer sour cream more with pancakes and blueberries
    i was so hungry i’ve made fried potatoes with white fish and some salsa and am eating it
    cooking is happening for the second time since august though

  35. Yes, vinegar is delicious. Try Japanese tako-su (octopus in vinegar) — wonderful! Vinegar is an indispensible element in northwest Chinese cookery. Pour a little in your (northwestern style) noodles to add that je ne sais quoi. Yes, vinegar is one of the underrated condiments.

  36. It pains me to learn that fish & chips is a Jewish innovation; I feel like I can’t complain as bitterly when my shop is stunk up with them.
    Anyway, everybody knows that the proper thing to put on potatoes is gravy. I’ll put vinegar in my soup or my salad, but my potatoes have no need for them because they are gravied.
    To contribute linguistic interest to this, here’s all Raphael Finkel’s entries for ‘gravy’:
    brotyoykh (roast-broth)
    I asked my Yiddish teacher which one he liked best, and he gave me a blank look. Surely not ‘sos’, though.

  37. What kind of shop, Z.D.?

  38. In the UK ‘Prep’ is associated with private schools (or public schools as we call them) in two ways.
    A ‘prep’ (or, more properly, ‘preparatory’) school ‘prepared’ you for your senior school. It gave you ‘prep’ (homework)to do out of school hours as ‘preparation’ for lessons.

  39. “Perp” on the other hand is one who (in police parlance) perpetrates a crime.

  40. What kind of shop, Z.D.?
    A computer repair shop. No place for the stink of fish, however Ashkenazic.

  41. @Catanea: yup.

  42. A computer repair shop. No place for the stink of fish, however Ashkenazic.
    Plenty of chips, though (boom-tish!)

  43. Do you use Kosher chips?

  44. I don’t see what’s so funny about quality computer repair, delivered in a timely fashion, in a religiously neutral environment!

  45. in a religiously neutral environment
    So, pareve then?

  46. Wow, I handed that one up on a silver platter.
    Now ask me if the platter was fleyshik or milkhik.

  47. (Insert the joke about the Jewish Native Americans who have to call off their buffalo hunt because the chief has forgotten the milkhedike tomahak here, because I can’t tell it in full.)

  48. (Insert the joke about the Jewish Native Americans who have to call off their buffalo hunt because the chief has forgotten the milkhedike tomahak here, because I can’t tell it in full.)

  49. Kosher chips
    And wash them down with Gatorade brewed from the alligator clips (or as they say in Oz, croc clips).

  50. Curious that so many computer/techie types come around here.

  51. You know, I heard that ‘tomahawk’ was an old corruption of Yiddish tomer hakn “in case of chopping” but I never gave it much credence… until now.

  52. I don’t see what’s so funny about quality computer repair, delivered in a timely fashion, in a religiously neutral environment!
    With all due respect, without divine intervention the “timely” rings false.

  53. I feel like we are all about one collective Red Bull away from some really bad sketch comedy.

  54. “Corominas also observes that Castillian must have borrowed escabeche from the Catalan escabeig and not directly from the Arabic sikbaj, or it would have ended up something like escabej.”
    No. Different kind of Arabic, one that had g for the j in sikbaj, probably.
    Vinegar or the equivalent goes naturally with beef. Steak sauces all have some sour element, whether vinegar or citrus or just the fermentation of the ingredients, even a Sauce Bearnaise with a grilled steak, just about my favorite.
    Come to think of it, the sour element is the reason for pairing applesauce or horseradish with roast pork or chops, or suaerkraut for that matter. Sorry to be so literal.

  55. This topic seems to be drifting foodward.
    So you encourage me to ask two questions (I don’t live among people I can ask):
    What, if anything, is the [chemical?] difference between roast potatoes and chips. I’ve got goose and duck fat. Enough dripping hasn’t come my way yet. But chemically, thick chips done on the hob “versus” roast potatoes in the oven? How are they different from “chips”? @Codfish? have you an answer?
    And: second, A friend of mine has occasionally offered us “balsamic vinegar” which was really more like a kind of savoury chocolate syrup with the chocolate element toned far back. Does anybody know what this is? Is it what any of you commenters mean by “balsamic vinegar” which could completely change the interpretation of your comments…

  56. Catanea, Balsamic Vinegar is indeed a reduction of cooked grape juice and thus, depending on many factors, can be quite syrupy, somewhat chocolatey, or both. Chocolate is a flavor one can find cropping up in many aged grape juice products.
    And chips are fried, of course, rather than roasted, which is to say the surface of them becomes infused with hot fat, vs the dry airborne heat of roasting. Hot fat can be much hotter than air or water (and a liquid can more efficiently transfer heat), so it crisps and caramelizes the starches in the potatoes in a way you can’t get with roasting. Plus, it makes them fattier themselves, and that is tasty.

  57. And dare I ask you, what land do you live in that has either balsamic nor french fries?

  58. American chips are completely different from British chips, which are what we call French fries. They are deep fried in oil. The fish and chips I had in London came in a paper bag with dark (oily) stains evident on the bag even before the vinegar went on. You can buy fish and chips in the states even with vinegar, but afaik if you want good fish and chips with yummy vinegar, you have to go to England. And yes we eat fries with ketchup.
    Not quite sure how something is “done on the hob.”
    goose and duck fat–I suspect these might be solid at room temperature, and therefore “saturated” fat and not the healthiest thing in the world to use for frying, not that frying is intrinsically healthy.

  59. Balsamic vinegar is aged in wooden casts. The longer it is aged, the more syrupy it gets. Just a few years old is fine for a salad dressing with more flavor than wine or cider vinegars. More than 12 years (tradizionale) and you’d expect to use it almost as as glaze, on grilled veggies, say. More than 25 years (extra vecchio) is more for fresh strawberries or gelato. And more than 100 years (grande vecchio) is robust enough to be an apéritif all by itself, either by the spoonful or in sparkling mineral water.

  60. Oops. casks.

  61. M: you’d expect to use it almost as as glaze, on grilled veggies, say
    What, straight? Or diluted with something?
    At a restaurant in Germany I once got Gänseschmalz instead of butter to put on the bread. It was really good and I hope I never get offered it again (poor goose, poor arteries).

  62. Just last night I had butter tea for the first time! (Speaking of the arteries) I had to have seconds. It was tremendously fortifying.

  63. Round here there are a handful of friet vans run by a nominally Belgian family, and the sauce of the discerning is oorlog (“war”), consisting of pretend-mayonaise, peanut sauce and finely chopped onions.
    It is very good, but it doesn’t change the fact that proper fish and chips with malt vinegar is one of very few foodstuffs I miss from Blighty. (Most of the others are salt and vinegar crisps. Why will Johnny Foreigner not accept that this is the canonical flavour? Lord knows I’ve explained it slowly and loudly enough!)

  64. Corona: My German mother talked a lot (in English) about “goose grease”, but she never fed it to us. Probably a good thing.
    Z.D.: I suppose I should have written tomehak, then. More seriously, the OED says tomahawk is a borrowing from Powhatan (Virginia Algonquian, now extinct), a nominalization of the verb ‘cut’, something like ‘what is used for cutting’. Unfortunately, the -hawk part is the nominalizer.

  65. I haven’t had Tibetan butter tea, with salt and barley, but I think I’d like it.

  66. Having now seen ZD’s very interesting blog, it seems Z.D. Smith and John Cowan live within shouting distance of one another.

  67. I don’t see what leads you to that conclusion. I’ve been shouting a lot recently, sometimes in Yiddish even, and I’ve never met the man once.

  68. And you have a common interest in computers.

  69. Perhaps a shout therapist should be consulted. People believe that shouting “just comes naturally”, but in fact for most of the population the capacity for shouting has been severely impaired.

  70. It’s true. Today I tried to moo as loudly as I could in a shed full of cows, but I couldn’t get close to the volume each of the cows themselves produce. I don’t think it’s just because of their much greater size; I’ve tried baaing with sheep, without much success. The sheep have much deeper voices than I do. Maybe a professional singer could do it.

  71. I couldn’t get close to the volume
    This is what distinguishes you from the heard.

  72. Z.D., I would be interested in meeting you. I just posted a comment on your blog, so you have my email address (not that it’s any secret) and everybody knows my real name. If you’re interested, let me know where your shop is, and tell me when I ought to drop by.

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