Two days ago on Sunday, June 26, Abu-Dhabi based Peruvian expat Nataly Leslie hosted a special get-together at home to celebrate her heritage. It was an all-hands-on board operation in the kitchen, with the strongest partygoers absorbed in squeezing tough limes for the juice and the others in prepping ingredients ginger, cilantro, aji chili peppers and fresh fish cuts of hammour, sea bream and sea bass together.
With a sprinkling of Peruvian music and hearty laughter on the way, hand-in-hand they were walking the culinary path to ceviche or ‘cebiche’, in Spanish the ‘v’ ends up being pronounced as ‘b’. The time had finally come for ceviche day festivities, also a national holiday back in Peru.
“Ceviche means home for me. It’s the first dish I eat when I go to Peru. One time I visited Peru, and as soon as I landed, the first thing I went to do is to get a plate of ceviche after 33 hours of flying from Abu Dhabi to Lima,” says Leslie, who is 38 and hails from the mountainous city of Cuzco. “Many Peruvians I meet here, they always think about ceviche. If you ask, their cravings are ceviche – it could be one of the most missed dishes.”
Ceviche means home for me. It’s the first dish I eat when I go to Peru...Many Peruvians I meet here, they always think about ceviche. If you ask, their cravings are ceviche – it could be one of the most missed dishes.
Also known as cebiche, this Peruvian national treasure is at heart a dish of tangy, citrus-soaked cubed raw fish tossed in chili peppers, ginger, sometimes onions and salt.
But it is also so much more, able to transform in hundreds of ways – doused in passionfruit instead of lime, using black clams or octopus instead of fish, and accompanied by a huge variety of fruits and vegetables - while remaining true to its origin. In this vast nation home to lush green jungles of the Amazon, snow-capped mountains of the Andes that towers up to 6000 metres above the sea, and a breezy, turquoise coastline along the Pacific, it is one dish that unites Peruvians across all terrains – and today, almost 40 million Peruvians across the globe are celebrating it.
A tropical delight in citrus, fish and spice
“Ceviche for us is an art,” says Chef Jolbi Huacho, head chef of the Peruvian-Japanese restaurant Clay in Dubai, and also a Peruvian expat. “It consists of the best products coming from the sea and the best products coming from the land, and we can express ceviche in two different words - one of them is citrus, and one of them is chilis. We have to find the best quality, fresh fish and then from the land, the lime, onion, chili, that is very important.”
Lining the streets of Peru are exclusive ‘cevicherias’, restaurants offering a selection of ceviche and the dish is a staple in homes and restaurants. Fresh catch is diced before being cured in the citrus of lime for a few minutes, which denatures the proteins, appearing to cook it. The creamy, tender fish mixes with the tart citrus and the spicy kick of chili peppers and red onions to make an invigorating mouthful, which Leslie says is her favourite part.
Ceviche for us is an art. It consists of the best products coming from the sea and the best products coming from the land, and we can express ceviche in two different words - one of them is citrus, and one of them is chilis.
She says, “It’s the mix between the lemon and salt – the flavour is sour, it’s a very beautiful combination. It’s a very refreshing meal, it goes really well on summer days when you are hot. But we eat it all year.”
It is a breakfast and lunch dish usually eaten after 10am and before late afternoon, she tells me. “In my Cuzco, we never eat ceviche after 3 pm.”
Part of the magic is also the juice known as ‘leche de tigre’ or fiery tiger’s milk – a blended and sieved milky liquid of ginger, onion, celery, fish cuts and even fish stock. It was originally the leftover liquid from the ceviche dish, but has now become a standalone drink and marinade for ceviche. Leslie says, “It is really, really, really yummy, and you can just drink the juice, but usually in my house – you put the juice on the ceviche, and on our plates, and we mix it all and we eat it all together.”
Before we look at how this versatile star changes across the shifting landscapes of Peru, let’s delve into the origins of this dish in Peru.
A 2000-year old origin across continents and cuisines
Even before the Incan empire, in the 1st century AD, the Andean Moche or Mochica culture included a dish of fresh fish, chili pepper cured in the juice of acidic fruits such as tumbo or banana passion fruit that the coastal communities would prepare, according to a 2012 commentary on Peruvian cuisine published in the World Nutrition Journal.
1500 years down the line, during the Spanish conquest of Inca in the 16th century, the women brought with them recipes from the Moorish tradition – a fusion of North Africa, Arabic and Spanish cuisines – and to Peruvian ceviche they added Spanish ingredients such as red onion slices and sour orange juice instead of tumbo.
But back then, the fish used to be cured for hours, sitting in the acidic citrus. Now, it is a few minutes – and we have Japanese immigrants who touched down in Peru in 1899 to work on sugar plantations to thank for this.
Chef Huacho says, “You know how they eat sashimi, they just put the soy sauce and eat it. So, at that time, the Japanese saw and asked – why are you curing the fish for long hours? What we get from the Japanese is like to make ceviche a la minutes, and eat a la minutes.” And the beauty of that? “You will feel the taste of the fish, you will feel the balance in your mouth,” adds Chef Huacho. An entire cuisine arose from this intersection of Peruvian tropical ingredients and Japanese cooking techniques that is now global – Nikkei cuisine.
Now, expect the ceviche foodscape to include:
Fish: Fresh sea or freshwater fish, octopus, shrimp, squid, black clam.
“In Peru, it is very typical to use flounder,” says Chef Huacho. Leslie says that although a wide variety is used, corvina, lenguado, caballa, tilapia are popular.
Citrus: The Peruvian lime, known for being very sour and citrusy, is classic. “If I’m in Peru, I have to use lemon from further north. The lime in Peru is very citrusy. This kind of lime is difficult to find here in the UAE,” says Chef Huacho. The range of fruits includes camu camu, passionfruit, lime and orange.
Fun fact: Leslie says, “It is something very funny – lime in Peru, we call ‘limón’, and lemon here is what we call lime in Peru. Yes, and we are always arguing with people – those are limóns, and they’re like, those are limes!”
Spice: Aja Amarillo, the Peruvian yellow chili pepper is classic, but Peru’s hundreds of chili species are also used. Red onions, ginger, coriander and cilantro can be added too.
Sides: Cassava or Yuca, sweet potato (camote) and corn normally comes as a side, as per a 2017 study by Peruvian researchers published in the Journal of Ethnic Foods. Even roasted corn nuts, or canchas, amongst others.
A way of life for Peruvians… and many other countries
“Since we are very small, we eat ceviche even though it is raw fish, and a little bit spicy. it is part of our culture, and our diet, and my parents would go out to eat ceviche,” says Leslie. She recounts a happy childhood memory of a home inauguration party: “I remember my parents finished building the house, and with all my family and workers, we were inaugurating the house. The dish we served was ceviche, and we had big pots full of ceviche, and the people gathered around and we were serving as much as they could eat. That memory means a lot for me.”
Chef Huacho as well, would have it at least two to three times a week growing up and says his best memories are of his mother’s ceviche – made of white fish, celery, ginger, garlic and onion all chopped. He says, “It seems simple, but very yummy.”
In the fifth most biologically diverse country in the worlds, each region’s produce and resources shapes the ceviche it loves.
Andean mountains – “I am from the mountains, so we don’t have so much access to fresh sea fish, so we will use the fishes from the river,” says Leslie. Chef Huacho explains that the Andean ceviche usually has lime, chili, salt and pepper, and varieties of corns, which are abundant in the region. “In the Andean, we have thousands of types of potatoes and many kinds of corn.”
Amazon jungle – The tropical bounty of the Amazon comes to life in ceviche - from its diverse fruits, to freshwater fish from the river. “In the Amazon, they use more tropical food like camu camu, passion fruit, banana, aguaje – many kinds of fruits,” says Chef Huacho, who was born in the city, Iquitos in the Amazon.
Coastal region – “In the coast, it is totally different. They like to use many kinds of chili, they are doing one with aji amarillo, white fish, onion, celery, ginger and also one kind of seaweed.”
It is also eaten across many other countries across South America including Ecuador, Costa Rica, Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba, Mexico and the Caribbean, where it takes many different forms. For example, Chef Huacho says the Ecuadorian ceviche can be brown with soy sauce marinade, and includes a mix of seafood. In other countries, tomatoes and avocadoes in ceviche are staple.
Happy Ceviche day!
In 2008, the Ministry of Production of Peru designated June 28 as a national holiday in Peru to celebrate this universally beloved dish. Across the country, there are fairs, events and special menus in restaurants celebrating ceviche as people also retreat to their homes for family festivities.
“I don’t know how they celebrate in Peru, because for people there, Ceviche day is every day,” laughs Leslie. “But for us, who live here far away, we try to get together with the Peruvian community every year.” For her, one of the hardest things about moving here in 2007 was not having ceviche easily available, but now she is an expert cook, having learnt with Peruvian chefs over the years.
Chef Huacho says, “I have to eat ceviche - I will invite my whole family. Of course, I have to cook. I maybe can do one version of ceviche.”
And, for those who are trying it for the first time?
Chef Huacho advises, “You have to first try the traditional version of the ceviche. You won’t feel that this is raw, you will feel that it is cured. When you eat it all together, with all the ingredients, you will enjoy – it is not spicy, we do put in chili, but the flavour is not only from the chili.”
That being said, we’re not going to keep you waiting any longer – here are three ceviche recipes for everyone, from the coast, the jungle and the mountains of Peru, by Chef Huacho…
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