Ceviche is the best known Peruvian dish. This popular seafood dish claims origins in Lima, Peru but is found in many coastal areas throughout Latin America such as Ecuador, Chile, Mexico, and Colombia. Ceviche is also known as cebiche and sometimes spelt seviche. In it’s simplest form Ceviche consists of raw fish and lime juice with some chilli, or hot peppers. In this post, I’ll be talking about Peruvian Ceviche (Peru’s national dish) or Ceviche Peruano in particular but the overall cooking methods, preparation, and ingredients are similar to other forms of this dish.
- 1 Ceviche – Limes and Legend
- 2 History
- 3 Authentic Peruvian Ceviche
- 4 Ingredients
- 5 Cooking Ceviche
- 6 Other Ingredients
- 7 Typical Menu
- 8 How Ceviche Works
- 9 What Kind Of Fish For Ceviche?
- 10 Storing Fish
- 11 Ceviche Recipe
- 12 Preparation times for cooking Ceviche
- 13 How Long Does Ceviche Last?
- 14 What to serve with Ceviche
Ceviche – Limes and Legend
Ceviche, pronounced “say-beach-chay,” is a style of cuisine that comes from coastal areas of Latin America. It combines traditional foods eaten by natives of the region and ingredients brought by Spanish colonisers in the 1600s. This culinary tradition has quickly grown in popularity around the world. Ceviche is not difficult to prepare but it requires attention to detail and fresh ingredients.
Let’s take a look and see why this wonderful food is gaining in popularity throughout the world. I’ll explain some of the myths about its preparation. If you’re curious about the health aspects of this dish read ‘Is Ceviche Healthy?‘
An interesting theory about ceviche is that the delicious seafood dish originated by the Moche of Peru some 2000 years ago. The Moche used the fermented juice from local banana passionfruit to marinate their seafood. The Spaniards, upon arrival, modified the dish slightly. Ceviche then spread to other Latin America nations as local populations added their own take on ceviche recipes.
Recently, historians have discovered that fish was marinated in chichi, an Andean fermented beverage during the rule of the Inca. However, this is only one of the many theories behind the origination of this much-loved dish.
The term “ceviche” may come from several sources. It could come from a Latin term, cibus, meaning “food for men and animals.” It may also originate from Arabic words for vinegar or soup, or just the Spanish word “escabeche,” which means “pickle.” Ceviche may also be spelled seviche or cebiche. In Spanish, these words are pronounced the same.
Authentic Peruvian Ceviche
Although ceviche recipes spread to countries all over the Caribbean, Peru lays claim to the original. Fans of ceviche are familiar with the name Gaston Acurio. He’s the Peruvian chef who made this dish famous by touting its traditional flavours. He also created several varieties of ceviche in his restaurants in Peru and all over the New World.
Without Acurio, ceviche would probably remain a regional dish to South America. Acurio says there are three ingredients you must have in this Peruvian delicacy.
The first ingredient you need is raw fish. Your favorite type of fish will work, but traditional dishes contain sea bass or shark. Ancient Peruvians caught these fish from the ocean and then served them as ceviche after the salt brine cured the meat after several hours. Once you have the raw fish, you chop it into tiny chunks before adding liquid.
The next ingredient you need is some kind of citrus juice. Peruvian ceviche recipes normally use fresh lime juice since the Spanish imported the lime around 400 years ago. Until the limes came around, ceviche consisted of salt, raw fish and chile peppers.
The third ingredient you need is an aji (pronounced “ah-hee”) chili pepper. These yellow and orange-coloured peppers grow all over Peru. In terms of hotness, the most popular kind of yellow aji chilis are 40,000 to 50,000 on the Scoville scale. For a comparison, jalapeño peppers are 2,500 to 8,000 Scovilles. Several varieties of aji grow all over Peru, and they have varying degrees of hotness.
Myth: The fish in ceviche is completely raw. Truth: Lime juice cooks the ceviche in its citrus juice.
Lime juice contains citric acid (side note: limes also contain flavanoids which have antioxidants and anti-carcinogenic properties). The PH level of lime juice is between 2 and 3 (Below 7 is acidic and above 7 is alkaline).
Myth: Consuming lime juice is bad for your stomach. Truth: on the contrary, lime juice is alkaline and can help return the average over-acidic western stomach to normal levels of acidity.
Lime is a digestive aid and the smell alone causes digestive juices to flow and an increase in saliva. Pick limes that are heavy for their size, indicating more flesh and juice. Discard brown coloured limes.
Ají Amarillo is a type of chilli used in many authentic Peruvian Ceviche dishes. It’s also a popular addition to any Peruvian dish that requires a bit of a spice kick. As it’s a pretty fiery pepper it’s worth plunging the peppers into boiling water (blanching) a few times to remove the heat for your first ceviche. The heat can be increased for later versions. You can use the chilli as a paste or chopped very finely. I prefer the paste. Buying the ají amarillo paste is also an option for people not keen on handling chillis and for convenience.
The normal process of heating food to cook it involves denaturing, which refers to the changing of the structure of the proteins in the food. A common example of this is when you cook an egg and the ‘white’ changes from clear to a solid colour. Another way of denaturing a protein is to apply citric acid. Fish bathing in lime juice is essentially being denatured.
The most important part is the freshness of the fish and the right acidity of the lemons – PISQU, London
The question of cooking time for ceviche is an important one. Some chefs leave the fish for a minute in the juice and others prefer ten minutes or hours. The problem is that fish can become quite rubbery if left to ‘cook’ in lime juice for a long time.
The quality of the fish is also important as marination will not kill all bacteria the same way cooking with heat will do.
One option is to quickly cook the fish in boiling water before marination. Many pathogens cannot survive in the acidic environment of the marinade but others can survive, so it’s especially important to choose high-quality fish. The fresher the fish the better it will taste and the less likely it will have any disease. Cutting the fish into smaller pieces is another good way of ensuring a more even cooking.
Try experimenting with marination times as longer cooking times can affect the flavour in a negative way. The lime juice can overpower the natural flavour of the fish. The delicate, fresh flavour of a high-quality fish is easily ruined by a strong citrus marinade.
The best types of fish to use for ceviche are:
- Sea Bass
Oily fish are not generally recommended for ceviche although some chefs offer ceviche made with salmon.
Chefs add other ingredients into Peruvian ceviche to complete the flavours. Red onions feature prominently because Spaniards introduced Peruvians to this vegetable at the same time they brought limes. Feel free to experiment with other spices and vegetables.
Marinate ceviche with clam juice to add a little flavour to the seafood.
A typical ceviche menu includes sweet potatoes and corn-on-the-cob for side dishes when you order ceviche as the main course. Regional variations in contemporary Peru add garlic, seaweed and other types of peppers, depending on the chef at the ceviche restaurant. Local and seasonal ingredients may change, but the basic recipe remains the same no matter what side dishes come with ceviche.
Peruvian cevicherías, or ceviche restaurants, serve appetisers in a glass. These appetisers contain small chunks of fish and the marinade that helped make the raw fish palatable. These appetisers are called leche de tigre or leche de Pantera. Those terms translate to “tiger’s milk” or “panther’s milk.”
The marinade is extremely important in both the appetiser and the main dish. The critical thing you need to know about ceviche is how the lime juice works its magic on the raw fish.
How Ceviche Works
Ceviche chefs in Peru experiment with the process of denaturation to get the perfect dish. Denaturation is a chemical reaction between the acid in the lime juice and the fresh fish meat. The acid changes the composition of the meat. Instead of a soft, pliable flesh, the fish turns firm and opaque, and it looks just like it has been cooked.
Centuries ago, the Moche people put fish in a bath of salt for many hours. Up until the 1970s, fish was normally placed in a bath of lime juice for a long time before it was served to a hungry guest. Chefs and cooks in Peru decided to shorten the marination time. They found that small chunks of fish, bathed in lime juice for just a few minutes, made the outside of the fish firm while the inside remained soft and tender.
Make no mistake. Lime juice doesn’t cook meat the way heat does. In fact, it doesn’t completely kill the bacteria. Fishmongers and fish experts try to pick out fresh and contaminant free fish for preparing the dish. Fish that hasn’t been properly handled or fish that is not fresh should not be used.
The acid in the lime juice works just perfectly to denature the fish. Other citrus juices simply don’t have the same results. If you want to be truly adventurous, add some passion fruit juice to the marinade for a true taste of Peru. Ceviche is great if you want a hearty, nutritious meal without a lot of effort.
What Kind Of Fish For Ceviche?
Shop at a market that you trust, or a fishmonger that maintains a good reputation is good practice when purchasing fresh fish for ceviche. Fresh-caught fish should be stored on top of and underneath solid ice, not melting ice, or in a refrigerated container at the market.
Follow your nose when it comes to picking out fresh fish. You shouldn’t smell anything when you pick out the freshest fillets at your local fish market. If you smell a fishy smell, it’s been sitting there too long.
The appearance of the fish should give you a clue as to the freshness. The flesh is firm to the touch and translucent, which means some light comes through the flesh. When you poke the fish, the flesh should return back into shape. Examine the eyes of the fish–they should look bright, clear and moist. If the eyes are clouded over, that’s not a good sign. Avoid those fish altogether.
You can use whatever type of fish you want with lime juice, but you have to monitor the time it takes to make the opaque layer on the outside of the fish.
Softer, flakier fish takes less time to marinate compared to denser, tougher fish. Our favourite is Sea Bass, and this would be a Peruvian favourite also. Snapper, sole or flounder may need just 15 minutes of marinating time before they are done. Tuna or salmon might take 50 minutes to an hour to marinate because these fish have tougher muscle structures. Raw shellfish, such as mussels, clams or oysters, are tender enough for just 15 minutes.
The best way to make ceviche at home is to make it fresh once you get the fish back from the market or fishmonger. If you have to store it for any length of time before making your masterpiece, the best way to do that is to place it on some ice. Lay your fish fillets flat in between two layers of ice. Make the layers by putting ice on a plastic tray and then covering the ice in plastic wrap. Do the same with another tray, and put the fish in between the layers of plastic wrap. Then place this entire setup in plastic wrap itself.
This storage method lasts for two to three days for fresh fish. If you have to use frozen fish, that’s a possibility as well. Freezing fish solid for a week a few degrees below freezing kills all of the bacteria and parasites that might inhabit the fish. This makes the fish healthier to eat if you’re worried about foodborne illnesses.
However, you increase your prep time when it comes to frozen fish, and the ceviche might not as tasty. Instead of cooking the fish straight from the freezer, try blanching it in boiling water for up to two minutes. This loosens the flesh enough for the lime juice to penetrate the flesh. The best part about ceviche is that you can try your recipe with whatever types of fresh fish you can find in your local market. The possibilities are endless.
This is not an exact science. Experiment with your own quantities as some people like blander fish, some like more lime juice, some people prefer less chilli, etc.
As a general starting point try the following quantities for 1 person and work from there.
- 200g skinned Sea Bass
- 5 large Limes
- Half a medium Ají Amarillo
- 2 pinches of salt
- A couple of sprigs of coriander
- 1 large red onion
- Half a clove of a medium garlic clove
1. Dice the fish into small chunks. The bigger the pieces the longer the marination time to completely cook the fish. I like quite small chunks (2-5cm). Add salt to the fish.
2. Squeeze the limes and collect all the lovely citrusy juice. Remove the pulp.
3. Chop the ají Amarillo finely or simply pop into a food blender and blend to make a paste. Remember to remove the seeds first as they will certainly be too hot for most palettes.
4. Finely chop the garlic. This can also be added to the blender and made into a paste with the chilli pepper.
5. Chop the coriander into small pieces and add to the lime juice along with the aji Amarillo paste and garlic. Mix well. This creates the marinade.
6. Add the raw fish to the marinade. Mix well and leave in the refrigerator. How long you leave it marinating will depend on your preference (see above).
7. While the raw fish marinates, chop the red onion into very fine strips and add to to a bowl of ice. Leave in the refrigerator. This will help reduce the sharpness of the onions.
8. Once the ceviche has been marinating for a sufficient amount of time remove the bowl from the refrigerator along with the iced onions. Dry the onions on a napkin and add to the bowl of fish and marinade. Mix well. Drain excess juice into a bowl to use for later. I prefer a lot of juice in my ceviche but many people prefer it almost completely dry. Experiment with different ways of presenting and consuming the dish. The best way to present the finished dish is to drain the excess juice, put the fish, and onions in another bowl and then add juice back.
Preparation times for cooking Ceviche
0-1 minute: the fish will be still pretty raw and will have a strong ‘fish’ smell and flavor.
1-2 minutes: Only minor changes in the texture of the fish. Some infusion of lime flavor.
2-3 minutes: This is a favourite length of time for cooking for some chefs. Experiment with this as for many people it’s still not quite enough.
3-10 minutes: The amount of time I prefer to marinate fish for ceviche. Not overcooked, not raw.
10-15 minutes: Depending on the fish, this can also be a good amount of time for marination.
15-60 minutes: For many chefs this is overkill. For some chefs, this isn’t even enough, so try two variations!
Experiment with preparation times, always use the freshest produce, ice the fish and chopped onions, and serve with a pisco sour to get the digestive juices flowing!
As this is a raw food dish the ‘shelf life’ of ceviche is quite short. Don’t store the dish for any length of time. An hour after adding lime and the texture of the fish will have changed quite a lot. Some chefs leave the fish to marinate for hours but once you add the other ingredients it’s not wise to keep the dish too long.
Want an alternative version of how to make Ceviche? The best ceviches recipes are the ones that most appeal to your taste. When in Lima, try as many different variations as you can and try to perfect the one you like the most at home.
As with any recipe, you can alter your ceviche based on your own preferences. If you don’t want it spicy at all, just leave out the aji pepper. Substitute your favorite pepper in its place, instead. The same goes for the fresh herbs and seasonings. If you don’t want cilantro, go for parsley, rosemary, fennel, bay leaves or thyme. Any of these herbs go well with fish recipes.
How Long Does Ceviche Last?
Ceviche tastes best and is best for you when it is prepared and eaten fresh. You can store leftovers, but the marinade continues to work on the flesh of the fish even after you get as much of it off as possible. After remaining submerged in a lime juice bath for two hours, fish generally start to fall apart. In the fridge over the span of a few days, this process happens much slower because you remove the fish from the lime juice.
If you can’t eat the leftovers in a few days, consider throwing out the ceviche or repurposing it for compost. After just a few days in the fridge, the fish probably breaks apart and it loses its cohesion.
What to serve with Ceviche
As a drink try a classic Pisco Sour, the national drink of Peru and one of the tastiest cocktails on the planet. As an accompaniment, I like some sweet potato or corn. Ceviche is often served as a starter so may not require a ‘side dish’.
Wondering if Ceviche is a healthy dish? Read our blog post ‘Is Ceviche Healthy?‘ and find out!