A series about foods we miss and our quests to recreate them.
While we all know Jamaica owes many of its food and cultural influences to British weirdoes (see: love of porridges; how my mother writes “Many happy returns!” in my birthday card every year), what is less known is the Spanish influence on the island.
The Spanish “discovered” Jamaica a long time ago. I, admittedly, am somewhat fuzzy on all the details of Jamaican history, but here’s what you need to know: The Spanish came first in 1494—some say it was Columbus, some say it was another dude. No matter. Today, we call the place where the Spanish (probably) landed Discovery Bay.
Between 1494 and 1655—when the English took over—the Spanish ruled the island, which they named “Santiago.” There’s not a lot of documentation of what occurred during this period, though it’s probably a safe bet that it included enslavement, torture and rape.
So. In 1655, the English took control of the island, and the Spanish bounced, leaving their slaves behind; these former slaves intermarried with the native Arawak people, then waged a guerilla war on the British throughout the 1700s. This column is called “in search of lost food,” not “in search of Jamaican history,” so I’ll leave you to study up on Queen Nanny of the Maroons yourself—but let it be it known she was a boss.
The English, in the meantime, imported slaves and began their long tradition of complaining about the colonies being beastly hot.
Today, descendants of those West African slaves, and West African slaves + British landowners-and-rapists, make up the majority of the island’s residents. (Shoutout to absent white fathers, without whom my family would not exist.) Plus, thanks to the Brits, who couldn’t get enough free labor, there are not-insignificant numbers of Chinese and Indian Jamaicans descended from indentured servants.
But let’s fast forward to this summer! In August of this year, Jamaica celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence and the Coming of Usain Bolt. According to my mother, who was there for the festivities, the air was filled with the sounds of reggae music, the streets flowed with sorrel and there was a goat in every pot.
Which brings us to our main subject today: Food! Much like Southern food, Jamaican food is heavily influenced by West Africa—but it’s also got British, Indian, Asian, Latin American and Spanish influences.
Now, I’ve made a lot of Jamaican food in my life. But recently I realized that the only major dish I’ve never made is one that took a long time to grow on me: Escovitch fish. Unlike most Jamaican food, which is warm, spicy, savory, and fairly accessible to most palates, this cold, vinegary dish was a hard sell in my youth.
My mother never made it, so I was only reintroduced to it every once in awhile at my Aunt Claudette’s house. I’d take a piece of fish and some veggies out of the white glass dish, taste it, and then go back to the food I knew and loved: The curry goat, the rice and peas, the festival. I was a teenager before I started helping myself to escovitch with pleasure.
This year I quick-pickled green beans, onions, and okra. I’d make vinegary cabbage slaw and devour it for days. All vinegar everything. After a summer of putting vegetables in vinegar, I started getting a hankering for escovitch this fall. While escovitch is gettable near where I live, which is D.C., I typically only eat Jamaican food at home. After tasting enough mediocre Jamaican food in restaurants, I’ve found that usually it’s either not flavorful enough or it’s Bobby Flayified. (Start adding basil leaves and the next thing you know you’re putting tomatoes in your curry goat, and then where does it end.)
After googling a bit, I realized classic escovitch was incredibly easy to make at home. This recipe came closest to what I was used to.
So, what is escovitch? It’s the Jamaican version of the Spanish preparation of escabeche, which is where you fry some sort of fish or meat, then cover it in an acidic marinade and serve. It’s pronounced “ess-co-veetch.” One good thing about it is, like many Jamaican recipes, it’s fairly easy to make and relies largely on you throwing a bunch of things in one pot.
Traditionally, escovitch is made with red snapper or king fish, but it works with just about any sturdy-fleshed fish.
Not far from my home in D.C. is a Caribbean grocery. Like most ethnic grocery stores, it smells like food, not air conditioning and freon. If you sniff the air and the store smells like dead animals and strong spices, you are in the right place. Pick out your red snapper. The fish monger will gut and scale it for you. He won’t cut off the head unless you ask. Don’t be weird about it. If heads freak you out, have them cut it off. If you are a right-thinking Jamerican, leave it on.
Aside from the scotch bonnet pepper, the rest of the ingredients you can probably get at the regular grocery store, and chances are they will be cheaper.
A note: Avoid mission creep if you can. But no one will fault you if, while picking up a serving dish at Unique Thrift ($5.45!), you also find yourself in possession of Barbra Streisand’s Guilty and Johnny Mathis’ Merry Christmas on vinyl.
Here’s most of what you need (“New Girl” and rose wine with ice are optional):
Ingredients for the fish
• 2 red snappers or other sturdy fish, gutted and scaled and de-headed if you wish
• Peanut (or other deep frying) oil, enough to give your pan about a half-inch
Ingredients for the marinade
• 2-3 tbsp cooking oil (leftover oil from fish is ok)
• 2/3 cup vinegar (white vinegar or rice vinegar taste best)
• Allspice balls
• 1 tsp salt
• 1/2 green bell pepper, julienned
• 1/2 red bell pepper, julienned
• 1 carrot, julienned
• 1/2 large onion, sliced thin
• 1/2 Scotch bonnet pepper, chopped, no seeds
1. Salt and pepper your fish. I used kosher salt and crappy black pepper because I lent my pepper mill to a friend and forgot to replace it. Don’t lend your pepper mill to a friend. By the way, you can actually salt and pepper your fish a day in advance, and it might taste even better, but I didn’t.
2. Fry your fish in about a half-inch of oil. (Cut fish in half first!) Fry for about five minutes on each side. Please thoroughly dry the fish first though, otherwise you will be sporting a splattered oil burn mark on the side of your face. I am sporting a splattered oil burn mark on the side of my face. Drain your fried fish on paper towels or a cooling rack.
3. Julienne your onions and peppers, slice your carrot.
4. Chop up your scotch bonnet and rub your eye.
Ha ha, don’t do that, it will huuuuurt.
A note on the notorious scotch bonnet pepper: Whenever I see chefs on TV work with scotch bonnet or habaneros, they wear latex gloves. I have never seen a Jamaican do that. Just be careful. Try to keep your hand on the stem and use a paper towel to hold it in place if you’re really scared. But really, just try to keep the moist insides of the pepper off your fingers and you’ll be all right. Then wash your hands immediately. What I did was chop the end off the pepper so the seeds didn’t get involved at all. You’ll be okay.
5. Pour vinegar, oil, allspice balls, salt into a small pot, then bring to a boil. Add carrots first, let them cook for a minute or so. Then add green peppers, wait another minute, red peppers, wait another minute, then onions. The marinade is ready when the onions are soft and translucent.
6. Dump the whole thing over the fish, which you should have transferred to a serving dish.
7. Don’t eat it.
In the name of science, I tried the escovitch warm, which I had never done before. What I took away was that like most things soaked in vinegar, it tastes best after a day in the fridge.
The next day, serve cold or at room temperature next to rice and peas (this recipe is pretty good) with some pear on the side. “Pear” is what Jamaicans call avocado.