A wide-mouthed, long stemmed cocktail glass sits before me, holding ceviche almost too pretty to eat.
Ceviche (she-BEE-chay), also spelled cebiche in some countries, is a classic appetizer that in recent years has snowballed in popularity across the world—particularly along the coast.
Ceviche is essentially a marinated seafood salad with as many variations as music.
Nearly every South American country from Mexico down to Chile has its own recipe, though the technique of "cooking" raw fish or shellfish in acidic fruit juice is said to have started in Peru, which counts ceviche as its national dish.
While Spaniards introduced the lemons, limes and bitter oranges most often used for ceviche marinades today, it is believed that Inka peoples preserved raw seafood in the juice of an indigenous fruit called tumbo, indigenous to Peru.
The heart of ceviche is fresh, fresh fish or shellfish—sushi grade—cut into bite-size pieces, then marinated in citric acid, usually lime. The citric acid changes the appearance of the fish, turning it opaque, while changing the structure of the proteins, making the fish firmer.
It is the variations of the dish that make it so exciting—from culture to culture, or even restaurant to restaurant, as many chefs try to reinvent the staple with a unique spin on the traditional.
A popular beach food, it is interesting to note that most food shacks and restaurants that serve ceviche usually close by 4 p.m. Among South American residents, it is mainly a breakfast, mid-morning or lunch favorite.
Regional differences in how the dish is served and garnished are often wildly unusual or exotic, though there are some generic ingredients that thread their way through most. Lime juice, tomatoes, some form of onion, cilantro or parsley seem to form a base. One popular garnish is tortilla chips, which make a great scooping tool.
Below, I share the most beloved ceviche recipes from Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Cuba and Costa Rica.
The Inka used the juice of the tart tumbo fruit to marinate fresh fish. Today, lime or orange juice is most often used. The ceviche here is usually garnished with thin-sliced onions, hot aji amarillo or rocoto chili peppers, with cold sweet potatoes and corn-on-the-cob on the side, cut into several slices, and black olives.
Here, the ceviche is often served in fresh tomato sauce with chilies, garnished with popcorn, corn nuts and other exotics. It is served family-style from a large bowl and can be eaten as a soup as well.
Ceviche is very fashionable in Brazil right now due to a Peruvian cuisine craze. Brazilians, however, generally prefer their ceviche with their plentiful mango, pineapple and carambola (starfruit). They have a vast coastline, which accommodates many beach ceviche stands.
Ceviche in Cuba gets a little kick from allspice. Shrimp is the preferred seafood ingredient, scallops as well. Being an island, there are lots of choices of fresh seafood. They like to garnish with scallions and serve it with plantain chips on the side.
Ceviche in Mexico is often served taco-style and garnished with hot sauce. Popular ingredients are mahi-mahi, tilapia, sea bass, red snapper, scallops and shrimp. They often add tomatillos, avocados, black olives and cucumbers with some salsa on top for good measure.
In this beautiful country they use club soda and fresh ginger in the marinade. The base: scallops, shrimp, sea bass and the same fruit-de-mer as Mexico from their mutual two coasts.
A recipe for the base of classic ceviche, or "ceviche de pescado tradicional," is below, but take creative license. Why not add jimica, garlic and squid?
1 pound fresh seafood (cut in ½ inch pieces)
1 cup cherry tomatoes (rough chopped)
2 chili peppers (seeded and minced)
¾ cup cilantro
½ cup red onion, (finely diced)
1 cup lime juice
½ teaspoon salt
Combine all in a glass or other non-metal bowl and stir to blend. Refrigerate at least three hours.
Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.