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Think of Peruvian cuisine, and ceviche is probably the only dish that automatically comes to mind. We’re in the midst of a Peruvian restaurant revolution, with high-end establishments attracting rave reviews in London and New York. While there is much more to Peruvian food than ceviche, this dish of marinated, uncooked fish (here is the complete cevice recipe) is its international ambassador. There is even a special day dedicated to it: Peru has declared June 28 as “Ceviche Day.”
Ceviche is remarkably simple. Raw fish cured in acidic liquid, with some spices thrown in. The fish you use is flexible (though traditionally a combination of white-fleshed fish and shellfish), the liquid is flexible (any citrus or even chicha, as we’ll see), and the spices are flexible (usually coriander, chili and aji, a specific type of blossom-shaped bright green chili), and it might also contain chopped plantain, avocado, corn, sweet potato and more. So the palate is set, but with a great deal of flexibility within it, and no true “origin” recipe. It makes sense that people who live near the sea have been preparing fish for millennia. Heck, ceviche could have been prepared, in its most basic form, even prior to prehistoric man’s control of fire! It has been dated back at last two-thousand years, but that is surely an understatement. This is primordial food.
THE ORIGINS OF CEVICHE
The key, of course, is that the fish must be fresh. Unlike sushi and sashimi, the fish is not entirely raw—the acidic liquid in which it marinates begins to break it down and partially “cooks” it, as well as imbuing it with flavor. But while acid “denatures” proteins, it will not kill bacteria (which applying heat to cook would), so one has to choose one’s ingredients with care. There is some debate as to whether this dish that is most-associated with Peru might be of Ecuadorian origin (one theory of the dish’s etymology goes that ceviche is derived from siwichi, the Quechua term for the dish). Some have said that the dish only arrived with the Conquistadores, specifically brought to Peru by Moorish (Islamic) women from Granada who accompanied them. Perhaps that is the origin of the modern spice combination that represents the ceviche we think of today, but such a basic concept, marinated fish, surely long predates the Spanish invasion.
Peru seems to have a stronger claim to being the home of ceviche, since Lima has long been a dominant and influential center, dating back centuries to the Viceroyalty of Peru, and so culinary trends flowed out of Lima to other Spanish colonies. But Spansih ceviche is not marinated in the traditional liquid of choice of the Incas. Both nations boast Incan heritage and, prior to the Spanish colonial invasion, the fresh fish was marinated in chicha, a liquid derived from maize, or corn. Lime and onion, currently the standard marinade for ceviche, post-dates the Spanish invasion. But if we want truly authentic, hardcore ceviche, I have to get my hands on some chicha. Today, chicha is a catch-all term throughout the Andes, for beverages that might be made from fermented maize, grape, apple, or manioc root (also called yucca), and occasionally for non-fermented drinks made with the same ingredients. The reason for the possibly confusing multiple uses of the term is because the word is thought to have been used by the Spaniards for all fermented drinks made by the locals.
How to make Peruvian Ceviche
I chose a traditional Peruvian recipe to follow, in which the fish was sea bass, though I’m told it would be equally traditional to use shark, sole or ad in some shellfish, like clam, oyster and even barnacle (though not sure where I’d find barnacles in the central mountains of Slovenia). The Ecuadorian variant includes shrimp and tomato, but we’re sticking with Ecuadorian. My geography further limited the choice of ingredient: I wanted to marinate for three hours in key lime and bitter orange, but I settled for lime and blood orange juices. Sliced onions, chili, salt and pepper were no problem, and that’s the end of the most basic version. Garlic, minced Andean chilis (like aji limo or rocoto), toasted corn or even seaweed. But for the basics, I’m all set. For true authenticity I serve up a shot glass of the marinade alongside the ceviche itself, mostly because I love what this shot of fishy, spicy acid is called: leche de tigre, or tiger’s milk. Sounds like something Charlie Sheen would endorse. The result is good and light and a spin of flavors that relies almost entirely on the fish being 100% delicious and not the least bit fishy. No one can really goof up this dish. So this June 28, “fire up” some ceviche—but only metaphorically.