escovitch

For lunch today I had a dish called escovitch fish.

Interesting word, escovitch. It starts with that esco, which looks vaguely Spanish and also reminds me of Escoffier, the name of a great French chef. But then there’s the vitch, which seems kind of Slavic, except that would usually be spelled vich without the t.

So I wondered where this fish was from. The thing was, the menu at my workplace cafeteria is a Caribbean theme this week. So I knew the dish was not Russian or anything of that sort. Perhaps it was made with a kind of fish with a distinctly non-Caribbean name?

The tall, bright young woman at the cash register was helpful, especially since she’s quite evidently from Jamaica herself. She told me and my colleague that escovitch fish is very popular in Jamaica, often bought from shacks right on the beach; people will go to the beach just to get the fish, and never go in the water. Escovitch, she explained, was a way of preparing fish, sort of like ceviche. You can do it to any fish – the actual fish I was about to eat was pollock.

So OK. This word, looking like a mix of Romance and Slavic with an English spelling, is a kind of popular thing in Jamaica. Well, Jamaica is full of people whose roots trace to somewhere else a long time ago – the young lady at the cash may well be descended from West Africans who were brought over a couple of centuries ago to work on plantations, though I didn’t ask. Jamaica has a version of English that is (in some dialects especially) influenced by West African languages. It has at the same time a colonial English history. And it has a lot of Spanish history and influence too, and some input fro all the other people who came through the Caribbean when it was still a developing colonial place with lots of trade and pirates and so forth. So this word came from… where?

Spanish, which got it from Arabic, which got it from Persian.

Nope, escovitch is not a Spanish word. Escabeche is. Escovitch is a Jamaican variation on escabeche. And the dish is, too. Escabeche is poached or fried fish, pickled in something acidic after cooking. Escovitch adds onions, chayote, carrots, and Scotch bonnet peppers. The Jamaicans gave the word its own local flavour just as they gave the dish. It just happens that escovitch is not a word that you would likely expect from Jamaica. But as an English respelling of a slightly phonetically altered escabeche, it’s not really implausible at all. It is also rendered as escoveitch and escoveech. The word has shown up in other altered forms elsewhere – for instance, scabetche in North Africa.

And Spanish got escabeche from Arabic sikbaj, which is a marinated sweet-and-sour meat dish. Arabic in turn got the word from Persian sik ‘vinegar’ and ba ‘broth’. So each language and culture in turn took the dish and its name and gave them its own rendition. Incidentally, ceviche may be another version of the same dish and word – although it has dropped the cooking step.

This is why I snort when I hear talk of purity in language… or authenticity in food. Please. I prefer to enjoy the flavour as I get it when I get it. It’s all the richer for all its changes, impurities, inauthenticities.

By the way, that fish was one of the best things I’ve had from that cafeteria in quite a while.

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