Papaya Mussel Escabeche

by Dr. Hennie Fisher

Fresh mussels are not always easy to obtain in South Africa, particularly in more remote areas. However, there are companies delivering boxes of fresh black mussels from the Cape coast in pristine condition to Gauteng. They are inexpensive, and without a doubt worth the effort of cleaning. If you plan to buy a large volume of mussels (or you are lucky enough to harvest your own from the coast), consider making some into this delightful escabeche preparation to be savoured with papaya. The escabeche lasts several days in the fridge, and with any remaining mussels make that typical French Belgian dish of mussels braised in white wine, onion and copious amounts of fresh parsley, to be enjoyed directly out of the shell with hot chips and mayo.
Should they not be available, frozen mussels in the shell would also work. If all else fails, go ahead and use the tinned ones, just skip the escabeche process and perhaps drizzle them with a little home-made vinaigrette.
This papaya mussel escabeche is a delightful summer dish that marries the earthy umami of fresh mussels with the distinct floral savoury flavour of papaya. The dish can be served individually, such as in this ‘restaurant’ style plated portion, or it could be made into a large communal platter that would work perfectly on an al fresco table.

Papaya Mussel Escabeche

The name Escabeche covers a whole range of Spanish, Portuguese or Latin American dishes that are usually made of fish or meat that are marinated and cooked in a relatively acidic sauce that has a deep rich Spanish paprika flavour. Jenny Dorsey from says that this method for making escabeche dates back several centuries, with one of the earliest recipes appearing in the 1324 medieval cookbook Sent Soví. It starts with a fish stock made with onion, olive oil, salt, and parsley. “With this stock you prepare an almond milk,” says Francesco Castro of this ancient version. “You then take fried fish, cook it with spices, add the milk and olive oil, and check for sweetness and sourness. You can then add salt, and raisins soaked in wine or vinegar”.

Ingredients for 6 to 8 people:

  • 2 kg of fresh uncooked, unfrozen black mussels, washed, scrubbed and debearded
  • 200 ml olive oil
  • 6 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 2 stems whole fresh rosemary
  • 3 stems whole fresh thyme
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 2 sticks cinnamon
  • 1 medium red chilli, cut open lengthwise and deseeded
  • 10 ml whole black peppercorns
  • 1 lemon, zest removed and cut into thin julienne strips, juice of lemon
  • 20 ml paprika (use smoked paprika if you prefer a smoky taste to the final dish)
  • 100 ml red wine vinegar
  • 5 ml salt
  • 1 whole papaya, cut into small cubes
  • A selection of tiny lettuce and herb leaves and edible flowers, dressed with a splash of olive oil, salt and pepper


Place the cleaned fresh mussels in a large pot with a tight fitting lid.
Cook on top of the stove until the mussels start to open. Give the pot a vigorous shake now and again to ensure that all the mussels receive enough heat, though the steam generated should do the trick.
Let them cool and remove the mussels from the shells.
Warm the olive oil, garlic, rosemary, thyme, bay, cinnamon, chilli, lemon zest and pepper until slightly bubbly.
Cook for three or four minutes.
Remove from the heat and add the lemon juice, vinegar, paprika and salt.
Check for seasoning.
Add the shucked mussels and keep in the fridge for a couple of days for the flavours to develop and the mussels to absorb some of the marinade.
Spoon a few teaspoons of the mussel sauce into the papaya, stir through and divide the papaya onto 6 or 8 plates.
Use a ring mould to press the papaya into a layer at the bottom of the ring.
Spoon some mussels and sauce on top of the papaya and press down lightly.
Remove the ring and top with a nice bundle of mixed leaves.
Drizzle some extra sauce around the mound of papaya mussels.
Enjoy with crusty bread.