Zucchine a Scapece is a typical dish of Neapolitan cuisine. Concia di Zucchine is a recipe of the Roman Jewish culinary tradition. Sarde in saor is a specialty of Venice. They all have one element in common: a vinegar marinade. But Naples, Rome and Venice have little to do with the actual origin of this curious preparation. In order to identify the birthplace of this technique we have to travel to Spain.
It’s a known fact that frying and also marinating foods in vinegar used to be a clever way to extend shelf life (a pH of 4 or lower effectively prevents rotting). There are quite a few dishes that stem from this ancient conservation technique. And they all go back to Spain. The Spanish learned this preservation method from the Muslims who ruled the Iberian peninsula for 700 years until 1492. The method then spread throughout the former Spanish Empire and is still particularly common in Latin America and the Philippines, Jamaica and North Africa, Greece and Italy.
Zucchine a Scapece
Linguists and food historians have agreed that the term ‘scapece’ attributed to Neapolitan style fried zucchini steeped in a vinegar marinade with olive oil, garlic and mint was an italianization of the Spanish word escabeche, the process of marinating foods in vinegar. The Neapolitan dialect is heavily influenced by the Castilian language. In 1503 the Spanish took possession of the Kingdom of Naples, and ruled it for two centuries. Naturally this domination carried cultural baggage that went beyond language. It entered the kitchen.
Concia di Zucchine
And then there’s the dish known in Rome as Concia di zucchine. Concia is a Roman-Jewish specialty dating back to the Renaissance. The recipe is practically identical to Zucchine a Scapece. Thinly sliced spring zucchini are fried, then steeped in a vinegar marinade with olive oil, mint and garlic. See a pattern?
Sapore = saor
And just like Concia and Scapece, zingy Venetian sarde in saor (fried sardines marinated with finely sliced onions in––you guessed it––vinegar) confirm the link to the same Spanish origin. During the 15th century, many Spanish Jews dispersed in the Italian peninsula. Some migrated to Rome, while a part of the Sephardic Jews expelled from the Iberian peninsula in the 1490s reached Venice. In these Italian cities their culinary traditions for preserving seasonal produce took hold. The Eternal City called the marinade concia, in Naples it went from escabeche to scapece, and in Venice the practice went so far as to preserve fish with vinegar, lending it a particular flavor, in Italian sapore. In Venetian dialect, saor.
Saor = savoro
A delicious mezé typical of the traditional cuisine of the Ionian islands of Greece is Savoro: fried fish marinated with garlic, olive oil, spring onions, vinegar, herbs and raisins. When the Sephardic Jews of Spain taught the vinegar-preserving method to the lagoon dwellers of Venice, later Venetian-occupied Greece brought the sapore to the Ionian islands and started calling the recipe savoro. Don’t you just love how language and food break barriers?
This is the season when the first beautiful zucchini starts appearing at the market.
Here is the recipe for Zucchine a Scapece / Concia di Zucchine
Ingredients for 4 servings:
- 1 kg zucchine romanesche (Rome’s own striped courgettes, usually topped with a blossom)
- One small bunch of mentuccia romana or mint, minced
- One small bunch of parsley (optional), minced
- 2-3 garlic cloves, minced
- Peanut oil for frying
- 4-5 Tbsp. wine vinegar
- 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
- A pinch of salt
Wash and pat-dry the zucchini. Cut off the ends and slice into thin coins.
In a large frying pan, heat abundant peanut oil to 350° F.
Fry the zucchini in batches so the frying oil temperature remains constant. Fry until golden, about 2-3 minutes. Fish the zucchini out of the frying oil with a slotted spoon and lay them on a plate lined with kitchen paper.
Season with salt while still hot. As you fry the zucchini in batches, move once cooled down to a large bowl.
Add minced mint, parsley (if using) and garlic to the bowl. Drizzle the vinegar and the olive oil and mix to coat well. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, best if overnight.
Serve at room temperature with plenty of warm bread to sop up the deliciousness.