When her grandmother made this family-famous fish in escabeche, there were rarely any leftovers, says Lisa Kear, one of our favorite Panamanian home cooks. Lisa now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, but remembers this vinegary-sweet dish as one of her childhood favorites when she grew up in the seaport city of Colón, Panama.
On those lucky days when her grandmother made a double portion, Lisa looked forward to the delicious meals that would surely follow. Would the pescado be used to fill her abuela’s fish tacos, served simply with freshly made Panamanian pan, or wrapped in that puffy Panamanian flat bread known as hojaldra?
Cooking onions and other vegetables in vinegar is a traditional Spanish technique used to preserve foods. Escabeche recipes remain extremely popular in Panama today. According to Lisa, just about every restaurant on the nation’s coast offers some version of this dish. The benefits of slathering escabeche marinade over pan-fried fish include: the recipe is easy to memorize and make, the dish comes together quickly and can be made far in advance, and the mix of ingredients are widely accessible and flexible.
Best of all, fish in escabeche is unfailingly delicioso!
Lisa’s grandmother typically served fish in escabeche with coconut rice, steamed potatoes, or yuca enmojado. Bonus: Their coconuts and yuca she used could not have been more fresh—they were knocked down or pulled up from the ground in the farm right behind their home. Lisa remembers her abuela using local Panamanian pargo or red snapper fish—always freshly-caught. She even knew the fisherman! That said, Lisa says escabeche marinade goes beautifully with almost any fish your family likes.
Traditionally, Panamanians make escabeche, as her grandmother did, by cooking the whole fish— tail, head and everything in between. Some recipes call for deep-frying the pescado in vegetable oil, but her family preferred the healthier route of lightly pan frying it in olive oil. To reduce the fishy smell, her grandmother placed a garlic clove in the oil, and then removed it once it browned. She then sliced the garlic and placed it right in the pan, adding a caramelized, golden, garlicky sabor Lisa remembers fondly to this day. Finally, Lisa recommends adding “a final, fresh squeeze of lime over the fish, once it”s on the plate. It takes it to the next level.”
This fish in escabeche was served year round and especially during Lent and Holy Week. Since vinegar acts as a preservative, the fish was made before they left for church or evening processions. Hours later, on their return from church, the fish escabeche was waiting, ever-fresh, ready to enjoy. What a delicioso, traditional family-famous meal to look forward to as a child—one she is still honored to make for her family today, Lisa says.
Interested in trying more of Lisa’s traditional Panamanian recipes? Check out her family-famous beef empanadas, Familia Kitchen Recipe Contest-winning flan, sweet guava-and-cheese empanadas, pollo guisado (stewed chicken) with spaghetti, and handmade Panamanian corn tortillas.