Cooking in the Tropics: Ceviche
Ceviche is a Peruvian specialty made from fresh raw fish marinated in citrus juices, such as lemon or lime, and spiced with aji or chili peppers. Prior to colonization, there were no citrus trees in the Americas. The historical record suggests that the raw fish consumed by the Incas was marinated in chicha (a fermented beverage made from corn) or in salt and aji. Legend claims that it was Moorish women who traveled with the Spanish conquistadors who invented the Peruvian national dish.
Citrus trees are native to New Guinea, New Caledonia and Australia. Arab traders brought lime trees back from their journeys to Asia and introduced them into Egypt, Northern Africa and Andalusia around the 10th century. The orange tree is emblematic of southern Spain, and Spaniard traveling to the colonies in the Americas brought cuttings to include in their gardens in the New World. So lime was added to the salt and aji, and a new dish was born. Ceviche spread from the Viceroyalty of Peru to other Spanish colonies in the region, where the original recipe was adapted to incorporate regional flavors and styles. It is now one of the most popular and emblematic dishes of the Americas, served in coastal restaurants from California to Tierra del Fuego.
The citric acid in the lime marinade causes the proteins in the seafood to become denatured, appearing to be cooked. (However, acid marinades will not kill bacteria or parasitic worms, unlike the heat of cooking.) Traditional-style ceviche was marinated for about three hours. Modern recipes call for a shorter marinating period, and with the appropriate fish, the fish is ready to serve in less than 30 minutes.
There are many different recipes for ceviche made from all kinds of fish, but all agree that the key to good ceviche is fresh fish. Most recipes call for a semi-firm white fleshed ocean fish. Costa Ricans like corvina (sea bass) and lora (parrot fish) or dorado (mahi-mahi). Because it is not being cooked, the care and handling of the fish are extremely important. When making a big batch of ceviche, it’s a good idea to keep the fish in a plastic bag over ice and prepare a small amount at a time. Be sure to remove the bloodline, and any skin and all small bones.
The fish is traditionally cut into small cubes and marinated in lime juice (1/2 cup of lime to 1 lb of fish). Fish can also be served tiradito style, thinly sliced like carpaccio, with the sauce added just before serving. (A tip for ultra-thin slices: flash freeze the fish for 30 minutes in order to make the flesh firmer and easier to slice.)
A popular ceviche served in many Costa Rican bars is a mixed seafood dish known as vuelve a la vida, with shrimp, octopus, squid, clams and red snapper marinated in a tomato and lime juice, onions, cilantro and chile peppers. This “corpse reviver” is supposed to cure any hangover.
We make ceviche for almost every party, and we are always looking for ways to improve the dish and for variations. A martini glass with ceviche on a bed of lettuce, with avocado and mango slices and a plátano chip, makes an elegant appetizer. You can also add a jumbo shrimp to the side of the glass. (I prefer the firm texture of cooked shrimp to shrimp ceviche, so I boil the shrimp in advance and then chill it in the refrigerator for a few hours before serving.) Another beautiful appetizer is sea bass carpaccio, marinated in lime and salt. Arrange the carpaccio on a plate with slices of avocado and mango, sprinkle the slices with mint, cilantro and scallion slivers. Dress the salad with a mixture of ¼ cup olive oil, ¼ orange juice, 1 teaspoon of honey and 1 tsp of sriracha, salt pepper.
Here are a few ideas for ceviche as a passed appetizer. We like to serve bloody maria shots with a few pieces of ceviche on a party toothpick in the glass. You strip the ceviche off the toothpick and shoot back the tequila mixture. Cucumber cups are also a good way to serve ceviche or pass a chip with a tortilla chip with a teaspoon of ceviche.
To preserve the freshness of ceviche, drain off the marinating liquid once the fish is ‘cooked’ to your liking. Prepare the vegetables to go into your mix separately – I like to add yellow and red peppers, celery, jalapeno pepper finely diced and cilantro. Combine the vegetables and ceviche with a dressing made with olive oil, orange, lime, salt, and pepper. Have a bottle of Tabasco or other hot sauce handy and let your guests add more heat to the mix.
Christina Spilsbury and Rick Macsherry have lived in Tamarindo since 1989. They own and operate Sunset Catering.