All seafood can be pickled but the process is most suited to oily fish like mackerel and herring. These fish undergo a delightful transformation in texture when cured and steeped in acidic liquor: the sharpness of vinegar or citrus creating livening dishes that feel like they’re doing you good – and they probably are.
This broad genre comprises all sorts of dishes, from Peruvian ceviche, (raw fish steeped in fresh lime) to Japanese shime saba (mackerel marinated in salt and rice vinegar) and boquerones en vinagre – delectable tapas of bite-sized anchovies in oil, vinegar and herbs.
The term escabeche translates from Spanish as pickle or marinade, and the process of fish pickling has more in common with marinating than it does with preserving veg in jars. Both ceviche and escabeche are derived from the Arabic al-sikbaj, referring to dishes with vinegar added towards the end of preparation. In his essential book On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee talks of how, in ancient times, escabeche was a method of making fried fish last longer.
It is, of course, also good to store pickled fish and seafood long-term in jars and cans – as we do the cockles and mussels traditionally consumed in East London pubs and with surströmming, the famously foul-smelling Swedish delicacy. To create surströmming, herring undergoes a long wild fermentation process that continues even after canning, to a point where it is considered at its edible peak when the container looks fit to explode.
Most suitable for the home cook, however, is short refrigerator pickling that can be achieved in just a few days. It’s easy to create the Scandinavian favourite pickled herring in all its delightful variations with little more than some super fresh fish, good quality vinegar, sea salt, a plastic container, a refrigerator and a long weekend.