Culinary History Mysteries #1: Salt-Baked Fish

Salt-Baked Fish










My friend and colleague in cyberspace, Chef Miles Collins provided the inspiration for this post by blogging about Salt-Baked Fish – a dish he was prepping for the menu of a family of restaurants in Spain. The restaurants serve up Spanish and related Mediterranean specialties with emphasis on seasonal and locally sourced ingredients. Miles post describes in nice detail how encasing a whole prepared fish in a vault of salt (measured in pounds or kilos) and baking it acts to steam and flavor the fish in a simple but delicious way. Some modern recipes call for adding herbs and spices or lemons to the fish prior to covering it with a thick salt crust while others call for adding lemon zest, lavender or other seasoning to the salt to add flavor. Either way, the fun part comes after the baking when the hardened salt crust is cracked to reveal the moist and delectable fish within.

I have long been fascinated by this dish, because so many nations have claimed it as their own. The Spanish have laid claim to it as have the French, Portuguese and Italians. The Moroccans have a version and the dish appears with East Asian additions such as ginger, star anise and wolfberries on Southern Chinese menus. I can smell a Silk Road Mystery from miles away – so I did a little research.

Even a few hundred years ago, this dish would have been expensive to prepare, because of the huge amount of salt needed to prepare it. Further back, it would have been a feast dish or reserved only for the wealthy and prosperous. The only people who could have originated this recipe on an ordinary budget were people in salt-producing areas. The recipe also seemed a bit to simple to be a European dish – or so I thought.

The earliest reference to anything that resembles Salt-Baked Fish in China is a recipe for Salt-Baked Chicken from Dong Jing in Guangdong during the Qing Dyansty (1644-1911). The recipe actually arose from the earlier preservation of cooked chickens in the salt fields of the area – which gave added flavor. I wasn’t satisfied, however, that this was the root recipe for the Spanish one that Miles blogged about, so I kept on digging.

Thinking about other salt producing areas, I turned next to North Africa or other parts of the Muslim world for the source of the recipe. I found one reference to it in Lilia Zaouali’s Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World. She writes about Shad Cooked in Salt which she says comes from, “a thirteenth century Muslim cookbook”. Unfortunately, that is the only definitive historical provenance that is offered for the recipe. It might be from Ibn Khalsun, an Andalusian author, but I’m guessing. In that recipe, one puts a layer of salt on a new terra-cotta tile, place the prepped fish on top, add another layer of salt and bake it in an oven – sounds like a good ancestral recipe for the Spanish one being offered at the restaurants that Miles creates menus for. Interestingly, the 13th Century recipe serves the fish with a selection of sauces, including: 1.) an appetizing sauce of oil, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, salt and black or long pepper; and 2.) a dark sauce (called murri) of small fish fermented with salt, oil, aromatic herbs, fennel and coriander. There is a lot of regional variation for murri recipes, but some call for barley, still others for wine.

But, the story doesn’t end in the 13th Century.

The earliest recipe I’ve found to date for salt-baked fish is from the 4th Century BCE in the fragments of Archestratus’ Life of Luxury. Archestratus was a Greek living in Sicily who espoused simple cooking methods, usually with minimal herbs and flavorings added to meats and fish. The only excption to this that I can find is a few strongly flavored sauces to optionally accompany cooked main dishes. His recipe calls for a whole, round white fish such as sea bass, sea bream or snapper that was cleaned and gutted. The fish is seasoned only with a few springs of thyme inserted into the cavity of the fish prior to encasing it in two pounds of salt moistened with water and egg whites. Baked and crust removed, the fish is served simply by drizzling first press olive oil on it.

Further research shows that this dish probably originated with the Phoenicians in Carthage along with their empire built on the salt and garum trades.  So, the simplicity I thought was, “African”, in a way really was.   Obviously, there may be Levantine roots to the dish given the origin of the Phoenicians in the Eastern Mediterranean, but I’ve yet to find direct or indirect evidence of that.  To me, it makes perfect sense  that the Phoenicians originated this recipe – given the extent of their colonies from the Near East to Southern Spain. Interestingly, this may be a recipe adopted by the sea-faring Chinese from contacts in the Mediterranean or Saudi peninsula and as thus may be another dish or ingredient that flowed from west to east. (Words by Laura Kelley, Photo of Salt-Baked Fish by Dextrosa |


19 thoughts on “Culinary History Mysteries #1: Salt-Baked Fish

  1. I first tasted salt-baked fish when a pair of visiting Spanish chefs made it a couple of years ago. I’ve been hooked since and have tried making it a few times – it gets better each time! I’ve wondered about the origin of the dish, and your blog answers that really comprehensively. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve quoted some of this information on my blog, attributed, of course.

  2. Hi Vidya:

    Welcome to Silk Road Gourmet!

    So, it seems that the dish is N. African (Carthage) (not Greeks in Sicily) – so my first suspicions about the simplicity of the fish as non-European were correct. If you like that story – other things that have suprising origins are garum (fish sauce) that began in Carthage and spread all the way to the Pacific, and ice cream that has Persian roots and nothing to do with Marco Polo.

    If you like food history, you’ll find a wealth of information here.


  3. Hi Laura,
    thank you for all this information about salt crust. I’m actually doing research on salt crust to write a small article about this in a french newsletter. I’ve found so few things about the history of salt crust on the web, that your “culinary history mysteries” is helping me a lot !! Could you please say me where you found the information about the Phonecians ? And if you could share with me your references about the history of salt crust I would be very grateful. Thanks a lot. Alice

  4. Hi Alice:

    I think most of the references are cited in the course of the text: Archestratus, Strabo and the “medieval Muslim cookbook”.

    The bit about the Phonecians is a bit forward leaning on my part. First of they dominated the coastal Mediterranean (outside of Greece, Egypt, Dalmatia and parts of Italy above the “ankle”) certainly by about 1000-800 BCE and probably quite a bit earlier than that. Carthage was their primary city in Tunisia, but they had major settlements all around the coast all the way to Gibraltar and Spain and including Sicily and Crete. Interesting thing in common about almost ALL of these settlements was the production of salt, salted fish and what we now call “garum” or “Roman fish sauce”. When Carthage finally fell to Rome in the 3rd Century BCE, the victor slowly took over all of this very profitable business from the Phonecians, who were routed first to Spain and everntually back to their homelands in the Levant.

    Control of the means of production AND the place where we first have literary reference to the dish tend to make me think of the Phonecians and Carthage as the mothers of invention of salt-baked fish. At the time Archestratus was writing about salt-baked fish, in fact, Carthage was actually in control of Sicily as established by its treaty with Rome in 509 BCE.

    I hope that helps.


    • Hello!

      Not sure about the origin of fried fish, but I’m guessing that the origin of Pow in the Americas and Caribbean was from China – probably from a Chinese sailor, cook or merchant on a vessel working ports in Latin America or the Caribbean. First off the root word for steamed meat-stuffed dumplings in China is “Bao” which is cognate to “Pow”. Seceondly, the construction of the the dumplings is very similar between those from East Asia (China) and those from the Americas. Hope that helps!

  5. Can you provide actual sources for your claims? I have looked through Apicius, Charles Perry et al’s Medieval Arab Cookery, Clifford Wright’s A Mediterranean Feast among other sources and can not find any European or Islamic historical references.

    I would love for this to be within my period of interest.

    • I have provided references in the post and in the comments. please read both. If after you cogitate on those, I will be happy to try to address any further questions you might have.

      • I didn’t find it in Apicius, could you tell me which recipe specifically?

        Archestratus is BCE and way outside my sphere of interest unless there is evidence that the method continued. Though it is interesting and I will look it up.

        Zouali’s mysterious 13th Century Cookbook is not a source I could use in writing a paper.

        • Agree that Zouali is not a good source for the dish – that is what I said in the post. I also checked Manuscrito Anomino and its not there. In fact, that book cautions against using more salt on a dish than can be absorbed by the flesh, or to cover it well to dissuade maggots from, “gathering the salt”. See Archsestratus and Strabo. If they are outside of your sphere of interest, there are other questions to tackle.

  6. Thank you for your work here. I had my first exposure to salt-baked fish yesterday and was anxious to learn something of its origins or history. I certainly can buy into Carthaginian invention, but given the need for large quantities of salt, really wonder whether there could have been continual knowledge of this method over the centuries or whether it had be invented again. I also still have my basic wonder, which is why anyone would even think about covering a fish with massive amounts of salt before cooking it. Since people were using salt to preserve fish, I suspect it must somehow be related.

    • Hi Ralph:

      Sorry its taken a while to get back to you on this – I’ve been preparing for my trip. Leave for Uzbekistan and places elsewhere on Thursday. I’m on the connectedness side of the fence on most issues and firmly rooted there. This may be because of my bias from my experience as a biologist, but it also stems from my knowledge of history and the connectedness between the peoples of the ancient world. When something good comes along, people share it – sometimes to make a buck – and everyone wants some of it. I don’t KNOW that the Carthaginians or their Phoenician forbearers invented this dish, I have only hypothesized that they did. However, I do know that they had they had the ingredients, including massive quantities of expensive salt as well as some outstanding fishing skills. Also, every Mediterranean nation claims this dish as their own – which means that it is very old. The two modern nations with the loudest claims to it are Italy and Spain, both of which were sites of well documented Phoenician colonies. Why hypothesize independent invention when we know the Phoenicians were rutting around the western Mediterranean in the second millennia BCE? We may have to agree to disagree on this one.

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