Sikbaj, the Origin of Fish & Chips and Ceviche

Little known fact – sikbaj is the ancestor of ceviche and fish & chips. For two fish dishes that don’t resemble each other at all, it started out as a sweet and sour beef stew in 6th century Persia, where it was the favorite dish of Khosrau I.

Khosrau I Anushirvan

Who? Considered to be the most successful Shahanshah (King of Kings)/philosopher king at the peak of the Sassanian Empire (now Iran, Iraq, Eastern Arabia, the Levant, Caucasus, Egypt, etc. AKA most of the Middle East)
Lived: 501 – 579 AD

Fun Facts:

  • In your classic example of high stakes penpals, the vizier of the Indian king sent a chess set (which he had invented) with a friendly playful letter that said “As your name is the King of Kings, all your emperorship over us connotes that your wise men should be wiser than ours. Either you send us an explanation of this game of chess or send revenue and tribute us.” Khosrau’s Vizier successfully solved it and sent back a similar riddle involving backgammon, which he had invented. The Indian King couldn’t solve the riddle and was forced to pay tribute.
  • After capturing Antioch, Khosrau built a new city called Weh Antiok Khusrau (or literal translation, “better than Antioch, Khosrau built this” or even more literally, “TAKE THAT, SUCKERS”). Around 570 – 637, it was the largest city in the world until it was overrun during Muslim conquests. This city is now part of this small town you may have heard of called Baghdad.
  • Hosted his own version of Iron Chef where he made all of his chefs prepare their favorite dish so he could choose the best one. All of them made sikbaj.

From medieval Persia, this recipe traveled along the Mediterranean to reach Europe, where it became a fried fish dish with onions and vinegar called escabeche in Spain. Meanwhile, in the Muslim regions, sikbaj stayed as a meat stew with vinegar. The reason for this difference is because in medieval Europe, Christians didn’t eat meat during Lent or on Fridays and Wednesdays and it must’ve been convenient for them to adapt this recipe as a fasting recipe.

Once this dish escabeche was established in Spain, it traveled to the New World via Spanish conquistadors. One of the places the conquistadors landed was Peru, where indigenous coastal groups like the Moche ate raw fish and snails and flavored these foods with chile. Modern day Peruvian ceviche is a dish that incorporates both of these dishes – raw fish, chile, lime juice (instead of vinegar from sikbaj), onions, salt. Meanwhile in Europe, escabeche evolved with a Jewish dish called pescado frito (battered fried fish eaten cold with vinegar) to become the the modern day fish and chips.

Sikbaj:

This dish requires a lot of meat because meat is too expensive for commoners and as King of All Kings, damn right, I’m going to eat a ton of meat.

Cut all the meat into bite size pieces. Here’s some of the chicken I cut – the rest of the lamb and beef didn’t fit on the cutting board.

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Put the beef in the large pot first and cover it with just enough white vinegar. After boiling for about 10 minutes (for it to cook halfway through), pour out the vinegar and add the lamb. Cover the lamb with fresh vinegar and boil for another 10 minutes (or just enough for the outside of the lamb to cook).
FYI, we totally kept the vinegar in the pot because we didn’t have enough vinegar and it seemed like a shame to throw it out.

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Add the greens (watercress, parsley, cilantro) to the boiling pot. The recipe also says to add the citron leaves (I used the peel of a lemon as substitute with the white rind for bitterness) and a couple leaves of rue (historical bitter herb that is no longer sold in grocery stores, so basically impossible to find unless you conveniently have this ornamental hedge in your backyard. In that case, PLEASE SEND ME SOME)

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Boil until the beef and lamb is almost cooked. Take out the herbs and add the chicken. Bring to a boil again. Add the coriander, mint leaves, a bit of thyme, and garlic cloves (threaded on toothpicks) and cook until everything is done.

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We interrupt your programming to bring you this brief intermission. When you have extra mint leaves, what do you make? Obviously mint julep, if you’re in the apartment of a whiskey snob (Hong wants to correct this to ‘whisky’ for the British spelling.)


Add honey or agave syrup, lovage (which is also a bitter medieval herb. I used celery seed as substitute), and saffron. To get the best flavour from the saffron (because saffron is more expensive than gold and you’d better get your bang for your buck), mix a little hot water to the saffron and let it sit until you can smell the fragrance and add the mixture to the pot.

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Turn the fire to low and let it simmer until it’s no longer boiling, or just 5 more minutes.

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Garnish with cilantro. We chose to eat the stew with a flaky scallion pancake, but it also tastes good with basmati rice (and is probably more historically accurate that way).

Finished product:

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Verdict: Would totally cook this again and it only takes 1 pot. But probably without the lamb, because that didn’t seem worth the cost. The sweet and sour flavor of the honey and vinegar really balances each other out and beef becomes super tender.

4 stars out of 5 

chess rating


Ingredients (6 servings):

At least 16 oz of white wine vinegar, depending on whether you want to refresh the vinegar each time
½ lb of beef, cut in bite sized pieces
½ lb of lamb, cut in bite sized pieces
1 lb of chicken (technically ½ lb of guinea fowl and ½ lb of chicken), cut in bite sized pieces
Small bunch of watercress
5 – 10 pieces of cilantro (leave some for garnish)
Optional – Some snips of rue (if you can even find it)
10 – 12 mint leaves
4 citron leaves (or lemon rind)
3 cloves of garlic (threaded onto toothpicks)
0.25 tsp celery seed (technically ground lovage)
0.75g of saffron
Parsley (1 tsp dried or 5 leaves)
2.25 tsp of ground coriander
4 oz of honey or agave syrup

Let’s Cook This:

  1. Add beef to a large pot, cover with just enough vinegar and boil until the beef is half cooked through.
  2. Pour out the vinegar, add the lamb, cover again with fresh vinegar and boil until the lamb is half cooked through.
  3. Tie the watercress, parsley, cilantro, mint leaves, rue (if you have it), and citron leaves in a bunch and put into the boiling pot. Boil 5-10 minutes until the meat is slightly more cooked and discard the greens.
  4. Add the chicken and bring the pot to a boil.
  5. Add the coriander, the garlic cloves (which are threaded onto toothpicks) and cook until all the meat is completely done.
  6. Add the honey or agave syrup (which should be ¼ of the total vinegar you used), the celery seed, and saffron. Pour some hot water on the saffron first and add the whole mixture into the pot. Stir in the newly added ingredients. Let it boil for 2 more minutes and bring the fire to low, where it should cook for another 5 minutes.
  7. Serve with basmati rice and garnish with cilantro. This can be eaten hot or cold. AND THEN INSTAGRAM THAT SHIT #foodtimemachine

Sources: Language of Food by Daniel Jurafsky, Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchen by Nawah Nasrallah

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