Ceviche

If there is a national dish for Peru it would have to be ceviche. The cold Humboldt Current that runs northward off the coast has given a bounty of fish to the country for millennia. Add to that a particularly potent variety of lime and the dish becomes a no-brainer.

But, like a lot of the country's cusine, ceviche is an immigrant. The name (also given as cebiche or seviche) derives from the Iberian Spanish word escabeche which refers to marinated fish. Clifford Wright insists the etymology can be traced back to the Arabic iskibaj and the even older sikbaj which refer to the same idea. All of which supports the idea that Peruvian ceviche has its origin in the Iberian peninsula but Peruvians insist a variation of the dish was prepared by the Incas.

It is, as noted Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio has noted, "an ongoing controversy."

Today, there are variations of the dish served up and down the western coast of South America. Why here? Because it is possible to get astonishingly fresh fish in Peru that were parasite free since the time between catch and table was usually less than one morning. Elsewhere in the world, this is not possible. These days, though, you can purchase frozen fish (or freeze it yourself for 24 hours) that eliminate the danger although it is heresy to a ceviche purist.

The most common fish to use in ceviche is Corvina, which is a general name for a several types of "drums or croakers" that are found worldwide. In the U.S. this would include Atlantic Croaker, Black Drum, Red Drum, Kingfish, Spot, Spotted or Speckled Sea Trout, Weakfish, White Sea Bass, Orangemouth Corvina, Yellowfin Corvina, Golden Corvina, Shortfin Corvina, and so on. More of these varieties come from the Pacific, and are more available on the West Coast. Bass and trout are completely different varieties of fish and should not be used.

What sets the Peruvian preparation apart from anywhere else in the world is the lime juice. The particular type of limes grown here (Citrus aurantifolia) has such a high acid content - almost double that of Persian limes that are common in the US) that it "cooks" the dish in minutes. You get a splash of sharp citrus taste and an explosion of the full flavor of the fish in every bite. It simply isn't possible to get the same effect with any other type of citrus (although Key limes are close).

Another key ingredient for Peruvian ceviche is the pepper. The Peruvian aji is an orange colored pepper about the shape and size of an Anaheim chili. It has a bit of bite but not tremendously so. I haven't really found a suitable equivalent stateside but I like it a touch hot so I use a serrano pepper portioned judiciously. And you never find ceviche in Peru served without boiled camote, or sweet potato, and choclo, Peruvian corn. They are a perfect foil to the sharp taste of the dish itself.

Sadly, a fad for Peruvian food stateside has brought it to the northern hemisphere where you can find a lot of really bad versions of the dish. The key to the dish is to have the freshest ingredients and by freshest I mean it's best to have seen the fish flipping around. I've had a lot of ceviche but, by far, the best was in Cabo Blanco in northern Peru where the grouper was caught that morning on a line simply tossed into the clear Pacific on the beach behind the restaurant.

Ingredients
  • 1.5 lbs white fish fillets
  • 1 medium onion, sliced into half circles
  • 5 limes (key limes would be best)
  • 1 clove garlic, pressed
  • 1 serrano pepper, deseeded and roughly chopped
  • salt & pepper to taste
Instructions

It is best to use two types of white meat fish as fresh as humanly possible. Cut into 1 inch cubes and place in a mixing bowl. Add the onion, garlic and pepper and mix well. Squeeze the juice of the limes over all then add the vinegar and salt & pepper. Mix well again and let sit refrigerated for at least one hour (in Peru, the fish sits only for 10-15 minutes due to the incredibly high acid content of the lime juice).

posted by kleph @ sunday, march 05, 2006 $formatted_time |

comment posted by: Joshua on september 27, 2007 @ 3:33 pm
Well man, I tried it out.

I began by going to Whole Foods (best fish monger in this neck of the woods) and purchased one pound of orange roughy and one pound of halibut (or maybe mackeral, I can't remember). Both were supposedly caught within 36 hours. They had Chilean Sea Bass but the butcher advised the roughy for flaky texture and and halibut for a nice soft flesh. He said the sea bass would be too chewy.

Got some key limes, an onion, serrano pepper, cilantro to round it out. Had a late start that Sat morning and so the ceviche was too be fixed at the tailgate. Cubing up the fish was no problem. Rolling, cutting and squeezing a seeming billion key limes was rough. But I'm sure that a fire ant bite on my finger was sterile after that. I tailgate with a dorm fridge (shout out to Honda generators) so in went the fish and lime juice for an hour or so.

You were right, the key limes were more acidic and cooking the fish cooked in about 1:15 hours. While it cooked, I thin sliced the peppers, onion and minced the cilantro. I combined everything and served.

The fish was great. There was a great deal of bitterness from the lime juice. I know this wasn't the traditional dish you write about above, but it's a pretty dang good attempt for Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And I didn't American it up with tomatos, avocado and other stuff in order to try to be true to the South American roots of the dish.

The bitterness is a bit of a put off. Maybe I did it wrong. Is there any way be better rid of the lime juice once the fish is done cooking? Is it integral? Whatever the case, many people enjoyed it and I gave credit to you. I only hope I presented it well.
 
comment posted by: Joshua on september 27, 2007 @ 3:35 pm
Forgot to mention I used salt & pepper, garlic as prescribed.

Upon reflection, that corn should indeed be a nice balance for the other ingredients. That or I might cheat and through in avocado or a touch of fresh citrus juice (had mango, orange and/pineapple recommended to me).
 
comment posted by: mel fitzgerald on september 9, 2009 @ 11:44 pm
Hey there cliff. We were just checking out your recipe here. Will give it a go next time. I just kicked off my own blog with one we made the other weekend. Hope all is well for you. :)

Mel and Sasha
 
comment posted by: mel on september 25, 2009 @ 1:57 am
hey Cliff. :) Greetings from Australia. thought I'd send you my blog link so you can check out my ceviche attempt. Tasted divine. I got the limes from my parent's lime tree and they are very acidic and very juice. It was a winner. Hope you've been keeping well. Sasha says hi. We love our Andean fabrics you sent over. They have pride of place around the house. Anyways... take care. :)

Cheers

mel
 
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