INTRODUCTION It was seventeen years ago when I first truly discovered ceviche.
Sure, I had cooked ceviches before, toyed around with different ceviche ingredients, and served ceviches to diners at my Miami restaurants. But it was in Salinas, Ecuador, in 1993 (led by my friend Humberto Mata) that I realized ceviche was not just a small snack playing a minor role at the Latin table, but a whole new culinary frontier awaiting discovery.
Sitting in the open air of La Lojanita, a cevicheria a few blocks away from the Pacific Ocean, I stared at the colorful array of no less than fifteen ceviches spread out before me. The map of flavors made my mouth water and my mind race; there were bites of delicately white merluza swirled with lime and jalapeños, chewy lobster chunks paired with bitter orange and slivers of cilantro, and buttery tuna drizzled with lemon and garnished with salty corn nuts. I was definitely inspired. Never before had I seen so many ceviche renditions served at one time, nor tasted as many variations on the seafood-and-citrus theme at one sitting. I still refer to La Lojanita as “Mecca,” because it made me a convert and true believer in the importance of ceviche’s role in Latin cuisine.
When I returned to New York City from Ecuador in 1994, I kept things simple, at least for a while. I opened Patria, my first restaurant venture in the Big Apple. There I began with just three ceviches on the menu, in contrasting hues of white, red, and black: a Honduran fire and ice ceviche made of silky tuna bathed in lime and coconut milk, peppered with ginger and jalapeño, and dramatically presented in a coconut shell with pillars of fried plantain; an Ecuadorian Shrimp ceviche (page 63) flavored with roasted tomatoes, red bell pepper purée, and sweet orange and lime juices; and a Peruvian Black Ceviche (page 66), mixed with seafood flavored with squid ink to mimic the black clams I had tasted in a Peruvian ceviche. These ceviches quickly became favorites on Patria’s menu, and I could sense that I was onto something.
During my five years as the Executive Chef and Owner of Patria restaurant, my thoughts often returned to that map of ceviche flavors I’d tasted in Ecuador and slowly I began to reconstruct the flavors in my head, hoping to breathe into them, someday, the life of America’s bounty and my own creativity. I knew the proposition of centering a restaurant’s concept around ceviche, a little-known dish already plagued by the inevitable raw-fish safety issues, was risky. But I was passionate about the idea and I knew that if it was going to work at all, my best hope was to try it in New York City. At that table in Salinas, I had seen ceviche in a whole new light, and I hoped to bring about that same awakening in my customers.
So with the new millennium, Chicama was born, in New York’s Union Square neighborhood. Named after a small fishing village north of Lima, Peru, Chicama was where I took my well-marinated ideas about ceviche and translated them into real-life dishes. Of course, the menu at Chicama was not only ceviche. Rather, it was a unique combination of tastes from Central and northern South America—rich, powerful tastes pleasantly balanced by the light, cooling effects of ceviche. Still, ceviche did act as the core of Chicama, both literally and figuratively. Specialized ceviche chefs stood within a rectangular display of glistening crushed ice, colorful bowls of mixtos ceviches, and whole fresh fish. High stools lined the perimeter, enabling diners to watch the action, much like the design of a sushi bar.
And just like that, a craze was ignited. I fed my friends and told them about my passion for ceviche and they did the same with their friends. The ceviche revolution had taken form. defining ceviche
At this point, it’s time to start delving into the definition of ceviche. Generally speaking, ceviche is any mixture of fish or shellfish that is “cooked” by the acid of a citrus marinade (although my shellfish additions are often blanched or sautéed before marinating) and typically enhanced with chiles, onions, and cilantro. It is an ideally straightforward dish for today’s style of eating, one that relies primarily on the highest-quality ingredients and skillfully precise, simple preparation rather than over-the-top creativity or elaborate, strongly flavored sauces or spices.
As the seafood in a ceviche marinates, anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, it loses its translucent appearance, becomes firm, and absorbs flavor. Garnishes are often a critical part of the preparation of a ceviche and vary by region. For example, typical Ecuadorian accompaniments are popped corn and cancha (corn nuts), while Peruvians add sweet potatoes, lettuce, and ears of corn to the mix.
Don’t confuse ceviche with escabeche, a similar marinated fish dish (also made with chicken, vegetables, and game) that includes citrus and vinegar and sometimes pickling spices for a sweet and sour taste. The most obvious difference between fish escabeche and ceviche is that the fish in escabeche is sautéed before being marinated, although it is still traditionally served cold or at room temperature. In my opinion, both ceviche and escabeche evolved out of the same ancient necessity to preserve food with an acidic sauce.
Ceviche is by no means a new culinary creation. Variations of the dish have actually been around for centuries in many Central and South American countries. In Peru, the Quechua highlanders of Inca times originally made ceviche-like dishes with only jewels from the sea, chiles, salt, and herbs. Some of these early preparations included a marinade of chicha, made from corn, or the acidic tumbo fruit, but it wasn’t until after Spanish colonization that the citrus flavors of Seville oranges and lemons, as well as onions, became part of Peruvian interpretations of the dish. The further influence of Peru’s Chinese and Japanese immigrants, who came to the country in 1849 and 1899 respectively, can be seen in many of today’s ceviches, which sometimes include such ingredients as ginger and soy sauce.
Although many historians believe that the Peruvians were the first to prepare ceviche (including my mentor, Felipe Rojas-Lombardi, whose The Art of South American Cooking inspired some of my first experiences in the kitchen), others argue that the seafood dish originated in Ecuador, Polynesia, or even Arabia. Regardless of its birthplace, the most plentiful examples of ceviche are now found in Peru, Ecuador, and Chile. But variations can also be tasted in the coastal towns of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the rest of Central and South America. The name “ceviche” actually originated from the word cebiche, meaning “fish stew,” and the Spanish and Latin roots cebo (fodder, bait) and cibus (food), respectively, but you’ll also find it spelled “seviche” or “cebiche.”
As a true ceviche lover, I, of course, have my own simple theory about the dish’s origin—all tying back to the immediacy of eating a day’s catch and the need to preserve food in the absence of refrigeration. Regardless of the debate over ceviche’s founding country, I think the honors should logically go to a fisherman who, having limes on board his boat (to treat the common sea ailment scurvy), quickly tossed together the first ceviche.
It was in the cevicherias that line the Pacific Coast, from Argentina north to Mexico, that the idea of ceviche as a meal in and of itself was first born; where the array of ceviches I experienced during my enlightening trip to Ecuador is not a rarity, but rather a joyful fact of everyday life. It is quite common for friends to recharge after long nights of partying by relaxing over a table of fiery yet cooling ceviches and ice-cold beer. In this instance, ceviche functions not only as a satisfying cure for hunger pangs, but a refreshingly appropriate medicine after one too many drinks. You see, ceviche juice, or leche de tigre (tiger’s milk), is alleged to cure hangovers.
General knowledge of ceviche outside the Latin community first spread across the United States in the late 1980s, when the flavors of the Caribbean filtered into Florida via the drama of New World Cuisine. Since then, ceviche’s evolution has continued on Latin-inspired menus from Miami to New York to San Francisco. But I’d only call these American ceviche appearances small uprisings—nothing like the revolution that I suspect is about to come. the virtues of ceviche
There are many reasons that I feel so passionate and confident about the future of ceviche. One is that ceviche is in keeping with the food world’s return to a simpler cuisine, a cuisine that focuses on the virtue of freshness. The goal in cooking today is to capture tastes, whether from land or sea, as close to their source as possible, bringing them to the table without the interference of unnatural substances, excessive handling, or unnecessary time. In this context, a ceviche revolution makes perfect sense. As I said, the dish’s very invention was born out of fishermen’s desire to eat their catch straight from the sea.
Additionally, ceviche has the same health-conscious allure of sushi, which has enjoyed a revolution of its own over the past fifteen or so years. I suspect it won’t be too long before consumers start seeing containers of ceviche right next to the lines of California rolls in their grocer’s refrigerated cases. Ceviche has a vibrant and refreshing taste of the ocean. It is light, yet highly flavored, and it offers a guilt-free indulgence that combines high protein with minimal fat and carbohydrates. This, along with today’s improved access to high-quality products, including extremely fresh seafood and more precise handling techniques, has bolstered ceviche’s appeal and will continue to do so in the years to come.
Finally, I tend to think that food, in general, has the power to cut across a wide range of ethnicities, races, classes, and backgrounds, and ceviche is no exception. Rather, it is a glowing example of how a dish can often be greater than the sum of its parts and have consequences far beyond the simple need to eat; ceviche brings people together. One thing that always troubles me when visiting Latin countries is the drastically visible wealth disparity. But have a twenty-minute conversation with any inhabitant, from a tin-roofed community to a luxury high-rise, and, guaranteed, you’ll receive an invitation for a home-cooked meal, likely including ceviche. In Ecuador and Peru, everyone eats ceviche, and its appeal cuts across ethnic and economic lines. Through my restaurants and this cookbook I hope to continue experiencing the pleasure of watching ceviche bring smiles to as wide a variety of American faces as possible. basic formula
More than twenty years ago, when I began experimenting with Nuevo Latino cuisine, my logic was to begin with straightforward classic tastes and add new ethnic influences and artistic flair, without disrupting the integrity of any of the original cuisines. I followed this same logic in the creation of my ceviches. Some of the simpler, classic preparations in this book have only six ingredients, while the layered flavors of more complex recipes may have as many as twenty. Still, most of my creations here hark back to classic ideas and flavor combinations, although I always try to throw in a dash of the unexpected.
In this book, I’ve tried to present a compendium of variations on the ceviche theme. This should provide you with enough versions of the dish to encourage you to serve ceviche not only in its traditional role as a starter or light snack, but also as an entire meal.
As I’m sure you’ll soon discover, the possibilities are really endless. As with any cooked seafood preparation, inspiration for a ceviche can come from anywhere, even a single ingredient. The exciting and unique thing about ceviche is that you experience each fish in its raw state, where its flavor is drastically different from its cooked counterpart. Essentially, you get to enjoy a totally new category of seafood tastes.
Remember that all the same culinary theories regarding the balance of texture and flavor that apply to cooked food also work for ceviche: contrast the smoothness of pompano with the delicate crunch of sea salt; the mellowness of fresh snapper with pungent culantro and sweet/sour tangerine; balance the herbal freshness of minted diver scallops with smoky bacon.
For the most part, my recipes have a relaxed style, where cooking times and ingredient lists are straightforward. When an unusual ingredient or unfamiliar fish is used, I’ve discussed it in the recipe introduction to tease your senses and calm your kitchen anxiety. You’ll find that after your first few ceviche-making adventures, the dish is one that lends itself easily to beginners’ creative whims. Conquer the basic formula, and you’ll soon be sailing your own ship.
Although ceviche may inspire countless creative interpretations, the basic formula has five main ingredients besides its core of fresh fish or shellfish or an occasional vegetable or meat base. These all-important components are citrus, salt, onions, herbs, and chiles. Although I’ve taken many liberties with ceviche’s basic formula to create the exciting dishes in this book, most of my recipes still include each of these staple ingredients. Some of the most enjoyable ceviches, such as some of the oceanside-cevicheria versions I’ve tasted in Ecuador, are a simple matter of tossing the day’s catch, just minutes out of the water, with lime, sliced red onion, cilantro, and chiles.
Let’s explore the essential components of ceviche. Understanding their role and the varieties from which to choose will give you confidence when making the recipes in this book and allow you to begin your own experimentation at home. CITRUS
Limes and Seville, or bitter, oranges are the citrus fruits most traditionally used in ceviche, although any citrus fruit will work. However, the acidic action that “cooks” the seafood is a critical component of ceviche and thus some addition of lime, the most acidic of the citrus fruits, is essential. It is the acid in citrus that breaks down the seafood’s protein and turns it opaque, giving it a cooked appearance. In Latin America, the criollo, or yellow lime, is the citrus fruit most often used in ceviche. We know its seedless variety here in the United States as the Key lime.
You’ll notice in my recipes that I have used all kinds of citrus combinations, and even sometimes sweeten my ceviche marinades with other fruits such as pineapple. Lime in any combination with grapefruit, tangerine, or orange is also a great marriage. Squeeze your citrus fruits just before adding them to any ceviche, not far in advance, as the acid in the juice will dissipate as soon as it is exposed to air. SALT
You might be surprised to hear that salt is one of the ceviche ingredients I find most exciting to experiment with. Most consumers are only familiar with standard table salt, but there are many different kinds of salt aside from common iodized varieties, and each one varies in taste, texture, and the ease with which it dissolves. Salt is so critical to all cooking and ceviche, especially the more straightforward preparations in “Tiraditos.” The simple ceviches in that chapter are a great backdrop for experiencing different salt varieties. Varying the type of salt used in a ceviche can have a marked effect on the dish. And although I typically instruct you to just use “salt” in my recipes, I encourage you to experiment and have fun.
You can splurge for fleur de sel, or “flower of salt,” from the natural salt fields of Brittany, France, where artisan salt harvesters sweep away this clean, sweet-tasting seasoning straight from evaporated sea water. For a more economical but similar choice, try coarse kosher sea salt. I like it because its large grains sparkle like little diamonds on plates of ceviche. However, kosher salt dissolves rather quickly, so it won’t hold its texture as long as fleur de sel does if it’s mixed directly into a ceviche marinade. Try just sprinkling some on top, almost like a garnish. For a more powerful ceviche, I might even try using black sea salt, which adds a rich, slightly eggy flavor due to its high sulfur content.
Excerpted from The Great Ceviche Book, revised by Douglas Rodriguez. Copyright © 2010 by Douglas Rodriguez. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.