Ceviche: A Healthy Ode To Fresh Fish
WHAT TO EAT: CEVICHE/CEBICHE
WHERE TO EAT IT: PERU HAS THE BEST-ALONG THE COAST IN PLACES LIKE LIMA IS WHERE YOU WILL FIND THE FRESHEST
If ever there were a perfect celebration of just one food, ceviche would undoubtedly be it. It also happens to be naturally gluten-free and very good for you! The idea is to take one central ingredient, fresh fish, and highlight it the best way possible. The other ingredients serve to just enhance the freshness of the fish. Okay, maybe sushi does that pretty well too but today we are going to focus on ceviche or cebiche, as it’s known in Peru. Most of you have probably heard of it but do you know what it is or what makes it special?
Basically, it is very fresh fish that gets ‘cooked’ in an acid. Here in Peru the acid of choice is the almighty limón. This word translates to ‘lemon’ in Spanish but the limóns in Peru are neither lemon nor lime like you can find in any other country. It is what makes the ceviche here the best. Limóns are similar to what we know in North America as a key lime (Citrus aurantiifolia).
The flavor of the limón in Peru is unique. The species here is known as limon sutil. It’s thought to be a close relative of the citrus aurantiifolia but it’s not the same fruit. Even in Colombia, where they have a very similar limón, the taste is slightly different. The rind is thin, the flavor is more aromatic with a pleasingly round, strong acidity and no bitterness. The best way I can describe it is a key lime that is more intense and rich. I can go on and on about the limón but I’ll stop here.
The most important thing to take away from this is how integral the limón (or the acid you will use) is to a good ceviche. It’s vital, the real heart of this dish. If you have made ceviche in the past and flopped, it might be because of the kind of citrus you used. Getting Peruvian limóns outside of Peru is a big challenge but if you can get your hands on Mexican limes or key limes, I would suggest those over the larger persian limes that you normally find in North American and European supermarkets.
Peru is undoubtedly the birthplace of ceviche. It dates back over 2000 years and even the ancient Incas used to marinate the fish with chicha de jora! The dish is part of Peruvian national heritage and they’ve even bestowed a holiday declared in its honor (June 28)! You can find ceviche in Colombia, Ecuador and even parts of Central America but Peru is not only the birthplace but where they arguably do it best. Lima has well over a thousand cevicherias and many different versions to sate any palate. If you plan to visit the city, the best places to try are Chez Wong, La Mar, El Rincon Que No Conoces, La Picanteria and I love the version with just almejas (clams) at El Rincon de Bigote. You can’t really go wrong in this city.These people know what they are doing when it comes to ceviche so wherever you end up will probably be fine.
Believe it or not, many tourists choose to skip Lima because it is not the most culturally renown city in the world. A lot of tourists that I met simply shrugged when I asked them if they had enjoyed thir visit to the city. And let’s face it, Lima doesn’t have too much going for it. The climate kind of sucks, it’s grey and misty for most of the year. There are no grand sights or world class museums. But (and this is a big but!) the restaurants here are world-class. If you are a food lover, you are in for a big treat. We were blown away when we arrived in Lima in terms of quality and great value. The food is off the hook, we are talking top-notch stuff that could sit well in big cities like NYC, Paris or London for a fraction of the cost! Our first time in Lima we were so lucky because the annual food festival, Mistura, had just started. Held every year in September, this is a great place to sample some of the typical foods of Peru. Here was the first time I had a chance to taste ceviche.
El Rincon Que No Conoces had set up a stand and we marched over, first thing, to taste it. Keep in mind that typically ceviche is a lunch food. The earlier you go to eat it, the better and fresher it will be. Most cevicherias close around 5 pm in Lima. It was about noon when I stood in line with my ticket in hand, half salivating, waiting to taste my first bite of ceviche. Sweet potato, sliced red onion, a hunk of corn on the cob (the corn here is much larger and sweeter though) and some crunchy chancha (fried corn) are the classic garnishes and were served to me with my order of ceviche. The fish was plump and fresh and I could hardly wait for my first taste! I dug in for that memorable first bite. Never in my life had I ever had such good ceviche. Each bite melted in my mouth and the acidity of the limón was nicely balanced against the sweetness from the corn and sweet potato. The raw onion and fried corn provided a crunchy texture contrast next to the soft fish. It was truly amazing.
They had something else on their menu called ‘leche de tigre’ and even with my limited Spanish, this was an easy translation for me. Milk of the tiger. But what did that have to do with food? Were they really selling tiger’s milk on the menu?! I was soon to find out. We were given a cup that appeared milky and cloudy but with flecks of fish, and finely chopped pepper and onion floating in it. Not the most appetizing thing to look at so I remained skeptical. We took a sip and discovered it was the marinade from the ceviche! Oh you cannot imagine how the heavens opened up on this one. Nectar of the gods for a salt lover like myself! Even Laurent who would choose sweet over salty any day, couldn’t get enough of the leche de tigre.
I learned to make ceviche when I was in Lima. I have a friend, Andres who lives there and he gave me great tips on how to make ceviche. He also gave me a few variations that he likes to do (which were equally delicious and I am going to share with you below). I feel like people don’t make enough fish dishes at home. It’s always something you order when you go out. Maybe they are worried that somehow it will get screwed up or don’t know a place to get fresh fish. Ceviche is very simple to make, as long as you follow what I say really carefully. You don’t need any pots, pans or anything to make ceviche. You never have to turn on the stove. Just a bowl and knife are all you really need. It hardly makes a mess, so if you hate washing a lot of dishes like I do, you will be happy to make this. It’s also ready within minutes, tastes delicious, is gluten-free and very healthy and even makes an impressive starter to serve to your dinner guests. Ceviche has a lot going for it, give it a try!
What You Will Need To Make Ceviche:
Ceviche needs only 5 ingredients. Anything else you end up adding is extra. Normally when a dish has so few ingredients, it’s crucial to use the highest quality you can find. You must start with fresh fish or shellfish. This is the number one key to a successful dish. Typically in Peru, ceviche is made with corvina. Other fine choices include sole, fluke or flounder and even shellfish like scallops and shrimp work well too. Octopus is another welcome addition that you see a lot of in Peru. You can technically use any fish but the most important thing is that it is fresh.
You also need a good quality salt. This is not the time to use the stuff that comes out of the pre-bought shaker or carton. Keep the Morton’s in the closet. The reason you want a nice salt is because salting your fish is the second key to an outstanding ceviche. We already talked about the limón, so get yourself some nice ones to work with, spend the extra money- if you are going to do something, do it right. The last two ingredients, very thinly sliced red onion and some fresh hot pepper, the Peruvians usually use chili peppers called rocoto or aji limo but you can substitute something else if you can’t find those. Click on the names of the peppers to find out more and use your judgement for substitutions. Just don’t use a green pepper (like jalapeno) because it will mess with the flavor. Green peppers taste, well, they just taste too green!
You can also add things like garlic or finely chopped bell pepper (yellow or orange are lovely choices). Chef Wong of Chez Wong is the only guy I ever heard of that puts black pepper on the ceviche. You can experiment here but don’t forget your 5 essentials. And keep the flavor subtle. I absolutely love garlic but I would not put it in my ceviche because I feel the taste overpowers the fish. Use sparingly. Finely chopped fresh herbs like parsley or cilantro work well too. Remember that moderation is key, you want the fish to be the star here.
How To Prepare:
As I mentioned earlier, the limón is what ‘cooks’ the fish. Not really cook in a traditional sense over fire but instead the citrus denatures the protein (unravels the protein strands) and gives the fish an opaque,almost-cooked appearance. It’s important to note that the citrus does not kill any bacteria the way proper cooking does. That’s why pregnant women should steer clear of raw fish and it’s also important for you to eat ceviche from a good source (i.e. a restaurant that believes in refrigeration or if you are preparing yourself, be sure the fish is very fresh and has been properly stored).
Take your fresh fish and cut it into about half inch or one inch chunks. Not too big but not too small. Place the fish in a non-reactive bowl (like glass) and salt your fish lightly, put it back into the fridge to keep it cold. Cold is a theme here because a ceviche should be served cold. Be careful not to oversalt. Ceviche is a balance of salt and acid and you will be adding more salt into the leche de tigre.
Meanwhile, boil a sweet potato and a shucked corn on the cob. Slice some of the red onion very, very thin for garnishing.
Next comes the all important limón. For a half pound of fish, use about 1/3 cup of acid (if you can’t get the Peruvian kind, please experiement with the key limes). Tip: Don’t squeeze the limes fully to help try to avoid the bitter pith. Bitterness will ruin your ceviche! To make a good leche de tigre, blend together in a small blender or little food processor-the acid, about half of a very small red onion (less if it’s bigger) and half of an aji-be sure to remove the seeds and pith (or your substituted hot chili pepper-habanero is a good choice). Blend it with about 2 ice cubes and salt to taste (it should taste pretty salty but a nice balance with the acid) until smooth and ‘milky’. If you really like garlic or cilantro, feel free to add it to the onion and hot pepper before blending. If you don’t like the little chunks, by all means, strain it.
Pour the leche de tigre over the fish and mix the ceviche lightly with a non-metal spoon. It shouldn’t marinate more than 2 minutes. You’ll notice the fish begins to turn opaque quickly signaling it’s ready. Remove the ceviche with a slotted spoon and serve wtih a chunk of sweet potato, a slice of corn and the red onion. You can add a sprig of cilantro too, if you like it. Serve the leche de tigre in a shot glass alongside. If you want your ceviche soupy, just pour the shot in. I f you like heat, serve it with some very thinly sliced aji, rocoto or your choice of chili pepper (be sure to remove those seeds and veins!).
*You Have Got To Try This Variation*
Maybe this shouldn’t be called ‘ceviche’ but for our purposes, lets break the rules a bit. You have got to try this one! Tilapia (a tasty and sustainable fish) works well in this recipe. Take your tilapia and cut it into 1/2 inch or smaller pieces than you would for ceviche. Generously salt the fish. Mince 5 or 6 cloves of garlic, 3-4 tbsp of white vinegar (more or less depending on your taste), 1.5 tbps of dried oregano (this is one instance where dried works really nice) and add to the fish. Massage fish with this mixture. Pour in about 1/3 cup of very good extra virgin olive oil to one pound of fish, more if it looks dry. Add more salt to taste. Serve immediately.
Try this variation (really more of a tartar than a ceviche) with tuna. Chop the tuna into very small pieces, salt it well and add chopped tomato, onion and enough olive oil to cover the entire thing. Serve with sliced avocado on toast for a delicious lunch or perfect starter!