An idiot’s guide to ceviche
If you’ve been south of the border recently and felt that between alcohol and questionable sanitation, you hadn’t risked vomiting to a degree that justified the trip, you might have considered courting food poisoning with one of the most famous dishes of the Latin American cultural sphere: ceviche. From Cabo San Lucas to Santiago, Lima to Havana, ceviche is ubiquitous wherever seafood is cheap, citrus is abundant, and the heat makes cooking an unpleasant prospect. For the uneducated, the potential health risks can often overwhelm even the most adventurous palate, yet a properly prepared ceviche is delicious example of food science.
The easiest way to present ceviche is to describe it as “Spanish sushi”, but really traditional ceviche has very little in common with sashimi and barely more to do with other raw meat dishes like tuna or steak tartare, which rely on the quality of the meat and the freshness of the meat (in other words, they go bad, fast). Paranoid palates may be pleased to know that health concerns have reduced the traditional hours-long marinating time to a few minutes; effectively turning this wonderful produce of chemistry into a tart seafood tartare.
Even so, the fascinating case of ceviche’s chemistry persists even in the briefly marinated versions that grace today’s tables. When exposed to a highly acidic marinade, meat proteins will denature, curling up and producing a firmer texture not unlike that of a cooked product. If you’ve ever had over-marinated meat, you’ll know that the combination of too much time in the marinade and heat produces a chewy, dry product. Since ceviche skips the heat, the meat remains juicy and tender. However, without the bacteria being destroyed by heat, ceviche remains a potential source of pathogens. Luckily, a highly acidic marinade is not a friendly place for bacteria to grow (think vinegar or buttermilk); as long as the ceviche was fresh when it went into the marinade, it’s no more dangerous than sashimi.
How did ceviche come to be found across Latin America? From a functional perspective, it is a very utilitarian dish, requiring no fuel to produce. It also has the Spanish to thank for its impressive proliferation; indeed it is really only found in the Spanish-speaking parts of the Americas; a cooked dish called escabeche is the closest you’ll get in Brazil, Belize, and the non-Hispanophone Caribbean. Most culinary historians believe that modern ceviche came from the marriage of peninsular Spanish and native South American cuisine in present-day Peru. The Andalusian immigrants brought the Mediterranean version of escabeche (which originated with the Arabs) to Peru, where it met up with siwichi, the pre-Colombian pickling technique using chicha (cassava/tropical fruit alcohol). Due to the political prominence of Peru in the Spanish colonial empire, the dish was able to transmit itself throughout the empire over the ocean, anywhere where fresh fruit and fish were available.
With such a wide spread, ceviche has definitely diversified. In Peru and Chile, a variety of fish are used, including shark, halibut, and sea bass, depending on location, and the marinade is based on a tart citrus like lime, bitter orange, or grapefruit, mixed with onions, peppers, and in many cases potato or corn. Peru also has the distinction of being the place of origin for the modern sashimi-like version where the fish is only marinated for a few minutes—courtesy of the large Japanese population in Peru. A unique part of the Peruvian ceviche culture is the infamous “leche de tigre” (tiger’s milk)—a small glass of the marinade served while you wait for the fish to denature. Ecuador, on the other hand, is known for using a wide variety of seafood including shrimp, crab, octopus, and shellfish, and generally includes tomato in the sauce. Ecuadorian ceviche is more of a cocktail than a salad, traditionally served in large group portions; it also tends to mix cooked and raw meat.
Outside of South America, ceviche has truly diversified based on the availability of ingredients and the influences of Peruvian or Ecuadorian traditions. In Central America and Mexico, the dish typically is an appetizer, often served in cocktail glasses, and commonly using a tomato-based sauce. Many of the region’s versions include hot peppers or sauces like tabasco, picante, and Worcestershire. Mexico perhaps has the most diverse ceviche tradition, with everything from tomatoes to avocadoes to pico de gallo mixed in with the meat to form a more Peruvian-style salad. Many taquerias even sell ceviche as a filling in tacos (not unlike tuna salad sandwiches). The Caribbean has its own rich ceviche tradition; some unique variations include Puerto Rico’s inclusion of coconut milk and the Bahamas’ ‘conch salad’. Like sushi, ceviche has a rich and diverse heritage; it’s not just “raw fish in citrus juice” but a unique Latin American culinary tradition. With modern techniques making it as safe as sashimi, there’s no reason not to try this fantastic seafood dish; perhaps after you’ve had it, plain old tuna salad will never be quite the same.
Looking to try ceviche in Boston? It’s not as prolific as sushi, but you can find it at many Mexican or Peruvian restaurants. For ceviche, Somerville’s Union Square (accessible on the 80 or 87 Bus) will be your Mecca—Machu Picchu has several variations on the Peruvian version as a full dish, while Cantina La Mexicana down the street offers a shrimp version as an appetizer. If you’re looking to impress, Kenji Lopez-Alt provides a guide to making it yourself with plenty of his trademark scientific goodness on this Serious Eats page. Make sure to use good, sushi-quality fish (this isn’t the time to use leftovers); if you’re still not comfortable with or can’t afford sushi-grade fish, you can always make the cooked escabeche. For starters, try this tuna escabeche recipe. Good luck in the kitchen.
Cover photo source.