Ceviche: An Introduction
Raw fish in citrus juices may seem like a bit of an extreme dish, even to the die-hard foodie, but try it in the right location with someone who knows what they’re doing and you’ll be singing its praises before you can say ‘So long sashimi’.
I stood on the roadside of the Malecon De Reserva in Mira Flores in Lima, trying to subtly study a map. According to the guidebook, reading a map in the streets of Lima almost guaranteed a mugging.
“Hola amigo!” I heard a voice say.
I turned to face the mugger, but found a friendly young man in a security uniform.
“You’re lost? Can I help?” he said. I didn’t know which was more distracting, how obvious my lack of Spanish was, or the fact he was on a Segway.
“I’m looking for this restaurant,” I said and showed him a piece of paper with a recommendation from my hostel on it.
“Ah,” he said smiling, “You want to eat ceviche? Follow me.”
I had to eat Ceviche in Lima someone told me before I went to Peru for the first time in 2010. Ceviche? I thought, what is ceviche? It’s a fish dish, I discovered, prepared in a citrus juice marinade made from lemons and limes, and left long enough for the acidic juices to ‘cook’ the fish. There’s no heating so the fish must be fresh. It’s mixed with salt, red onion, coriander and sometimes chilli.
The origins of ceviche are blurred. It’s believed to have been eaten in pre-Colombian times mixed with a fruit called “tumbo”. The Spanish colonials then added the lemon and lime. Another theory claims it came over with Moorish settlers from Andalusia in the time of the conquistadors. Whatever its origin its identity is Peruvian, where it’s considered the national dish. But its popularity spans the whole of Latin America, with cevicherias found from Chile to Mexico. Each region taking a different twist on ingredients or garnish.
I was curious as I sat at a table overlooking the Pacific, in the restaurant where the Segway guard brought me. The dish was a colourful sight of white sea bass, prawns, squid, crab claws and scallops. Mixed up with coriander, red onions and red chilli, and garnished with sweet potato and corn. I tried a forkful of the mix and was taken aback by the fresh flavours. First the delicate sea bass followed by the wild refreshing citrus. Then the onion and finally chilli that rose up with an ecstatic buzz for the final sensory hit. I took my time and slowly savoured each taste like a vintage wine, an instant ceviche convert.
I’ve now tried it all over Peru. From the coast near Trujillo to the Amazon basin, where it’s made with fresh water fish. I even tried a vegetarian version in the Andes. I’ve eaten it in Cental America, New York, London and Germany. Mixed with mango or served with cassava chips. But for me there’s none better than the ceviche in Lima, where I started. In a restaurant by the Malecon in Miraflores, or on a terrace in Barranco, while looking out to sea.
Ceviche hotspots – as recommended by the experts
Food for the road – easy recipes for you to try at home