Ceviche: the surprising history behind Peru’s raw fish dish
While it’s a fairly recent arrival in UK restaurants, this Peruvian raw fish dish dates back millennia — and has more variations than you might expect.
If you’d overheard a British restaurant-goer talking about ceviche when it first started appearing on UK menus less than a decade ago, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a brand-new creation. We knew — or thought we knew — it was a Peruvian dish of cubed raw fish, quickly cured in lime juice, but most of us had no inkling of its millennia-long history.
In fact, the concept of ceviche is so old we’ve no recipes for its earliest incarnations, which were probably made in or near Huanchaco, a town on the northern Pacific coast of Peru. There’s good evidence to suggest that 3,000 years ago, fishermen ate their catch straight from the sea, says Maricel Presilla, author of Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America. Chef and food historian Presilla spent months travelling through Latin America, gathering and testing recipes for her encyclopaedic book, for which she won a James Beard Foundation Award.
“I was near to the archaeological digs of Montículo Cupisnique, within the El Brujo Archaeological Complex — one of the most ancient sites in Peru, predating even the Moche [a pre-Inca civilisation, who many scholars believe were the first people to eat raw fish cured in acid],” she says. “And I watched women catching small fish and seasoning them with a lot of ground, hot [chilli] pepper and seaweed, and eating the fish just like that, with their hands, in their huts on the water. I can imagine the ancients doing the same, and the archaeologists there have found so many remains of seafood and fish in the guts of the mummies, and lots of hot pepper seeds.”
Today’s best-known ceviches are served dressed in a base of lime juice, salt, chilli and onion, with the citrus, in particular, getting to work on the proteins in the fish. As the proteins coagulate, the fish appears to cook, becoming firmer and opaque as the lime mingles with the other ingredients to create a fiery liquor known as leche de tigre (‘tiger’s milk’).
The Moche people wouldn’t have had the citrus fruit we now consider critical for ceviche — only South America’s indigenous chillies, which have been cultivated for around 6,000 years. Onions and citrus (initially in the form of bitter oranges) didn’t appear until after Columbus arrived in 1492, followed shortly by lemons and limes, brought from Asia by Spanish and Portuguese traders. Some historians think ancient cooks might originally have used the juice of the tumbo, a relative of the passion fruit, with lime being a natural substitute when it arrived. Presilla, however, disagrees.
“I tried tumbo in ceviche when I was writing the book, but it takes a long time to work,” she says. “Some chilli peppers are acidic, so I put a lot of hot pepper with fish and you do see some action. I just can’t see the ancients waiting around for the tumbo to work.” Presilla believes seaweed and chilli peppers probably did the job before limes came ashore. Unlike the Persian limes we mostly use in Europe, Peruvian limes are small and sharp. Today in Huanchaco, cochayuyo, a type of kelp, and locally grown limes are used in the cevicherias dotted along the beach and in town.
Mitsuharu Tsumura, chef-owner of Lima’s renowned Maido restaurant, is a fan of the northern style of ceviche. “People have been fishing in the north [of Peru] in the same way for thousands of years,” he says. “And they’re very into food, too.” His favourite is a northern version made with skin-on, bone-in mackerel, quite unlike the white-fish ceviches we’re most familiar with. “You suck the fish from the bones, and it eat very slowly.”
Maido, ranked number one in Latin America and 10th in the world, according to The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, always has ceviche on the menu. “It’s one of the most iconic dishes of Peruvian cuisine,” says Tsumura. “You can have it any time in the year, for lunch in a working day, on Sundays, for a hangover, as a street food or in a restaurant for $30.”
In the late-19th century, Japanese people began emigrating to Peru and now the country has one of South America’s largest ethnic Japanese populations, which came to be called ‘Nikkei’, Japanese for ‘emigrant’. Maido is one of many restaurants across the country specialising in Nikkei cuisine.
Tsumura explains that ceviche only became popular in Lima 60 years ago, and that one of the first cevicherias in the capital was opened by Nikkei people. “Until then, it was a fisherman’s dish, made with bonito [a fish] or whatever they could afford. There was a misconception that the lime juice really needed to ‘cook’ the fish, and the fish would be left in lime juice for 12 to 24 hours. If you have a beautiful fresh bonito or sea bass, after a day in lime juice, it could be chicken. The Japanese intervention was this — because the Japanese have sashimi, they appreciate all the properties of raw fish. They started mixing and serving it straightaway
— you could see that the fish was raw.”
Some people still marinate their fish for longer periods — even Tsumura does this once in a while, to recreate the type of ceviche he remembers from childhood.
Just as Nikkei cuisine transformed ceviche within Peru, Japanese cuisine set the stage for its eventual evolution into a global dish. With Western palates already used to raw fish, thanks to sashimi and sushi, ceviche was a much easier sell when it arrived in Europe this century. North America had a head start — helped along by Nobuyuki ‘Nobu’ Matsuhisa. In 1987, his Los Angeles restaurant was one of the first to serve ceviche and its delicately sliced and sauced cousin, tiradito, which he’d learned to make while cheffing in Peru in his early 20s.
While the country most associated with ceviche is Peru, it and dishes like it are made all along the Pacific coast and beyond. In Peru, it’s served with everything from sweet potato to toasted corn, and even rice in some pockets of the north; in Ecuador it features tomato and occasionally peanuts. Mexicans, meanwhile, eat it on tacos or as a seafood cocktail, often with avocado, and on the coasts of Honduras, it’s often made with coconut milk.
Latin Americans are not alone in their longstanding love of fish marinated in acid
— Filipino kinilaw, for example, is a strikingly similar dish. At least 1,000 years old, it uses vinegar rather than citrus. Looking to Europe, it’s possible ceviche is related in an etymological and a culinary sense to escabeche, the Spanish pickle. Colonial-era Spanish cookbooks contain recipes for both fish treated with vinegar (escabeches) and for fish marinated in the juice of bitter oranges. Ceviche is often spelled ‘cebiche’, or ‘seviche’, which could easily be a mash up of the medieval Spanish ‘cebo’, a word that described both fish bait and fish eaten as food, and ‘escabeche’, which some historians think may have travelled to South America with Moorish cooks accompanying Spanish conquistadores, often as their slaves.
Alternatively, the name may have come from ‘siwichi’, meaning fresh fish in Quecha, one of Peru’s pre-Columbian languages.
Today, ceviche can be found much further afield than Latin America. Kiko Martins is a renowned Portuguese chef who was born in Brazil and, five years ago, opened A Cevicheria, Lisbon’s first restaurant dedicated to ceviche. Sitting at the counter, I watch him prepare pretty plates of ceviche — deeply pink with beetroot and wafer-thin radish, or dotted with sweet potato puree and plantain crisps. Yet, while he experiments with adding coconut or apple, and pairs his ceviches with champagnes as well as the more traditional beer or pisco, he returns time and again to the original. “The Peruvian is the best,” he says. “It’s super simple — and super good.”
How to make it: Huanchaco fish ceviche recipe
Maricel Presilla travelled throughout Latin America collecting recipes for her book Gran Cocina Latina. This is a traditional recipe from Huanchaco.
Takes: 35 mins
For the vegetable sides
450g (trimmed weight) cassava, cut into 9cm sections, to serve
2 medium sweet potatoes (around 800g), peeled and sliced into 6cm sections, to serve
1 large corn on the cob (fresh or thawed from frozen), cut into 3cm rounds, to serve
85g toasted corn (or lightly salted giant corn), to serve
For the ceviche
900g skinless grouper or sole fillets
175ml fresh lime juice (6-7 limes)
4 garlic cloves, mashed to a paste with a mortar and pestle or finely chopped and mashed
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
2 lemon drop chillies (or habanero or Scotch bonnet, preferably yellow), deseeded and lightly crushed
1 tbsp fresh coriander, finely chopped
1. For the vegetable sides, boil the cassava in salted water for around 25 mins, then drain, cut into bite-size pieces and keep warm. Boil the sweet potatoes in unsalted water for around 15 mins until fork-tender, then drain, cut into 3cm-6cm cubes and keep warm. Boil the corn for around 5 mins, then drain and keep warm.
2. For the ceviche, rinse the fish in a colander under cold running water. Drain and pat dry with kitchen paper. Cut each fillet in half lengthwise, then cut across on an angle into 1cm-1.5cm pieces. Tip into a medium bowl, toss with 2 tsp salt and let stand for 5 mins.
3. Add the lime juice, garlic, onion, chillies and coriander to the fish and toss well (some cooks add a couple of ice cubes to cool the juices and tone down the acidity of the lime).
4. Serve immediately in individual soup plates, alongside the cassava, sweet potato and corn. This recipe originally appeared in Gran Cocina Latina: the food of Latin America, by Maricel Presilla (£33, W W Norton & Company).
Published in Issue 11 (spring 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food
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