ORGULLO LATINOReading time: 4 minutes
Ceviche is Peru on a plate
Raw fish is a lot more complex than you might think.
Like geological layers: that’s how Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa describes the history of Peru in his autobiography, A Fish in the Water.
He writes that one can read the history of the capital, Lima, in the layers of construction materials used, just as one would read the history of an area in its geological layers.
The metaphor can, of course, also be applied to Peruvian food because the ingredients with which dishes are prepared today tell the story of the cultural melting pot in which it was created.
Layers of complexity and influence that is clearly evident in its most famous dish: ceviche.
But what is ceviche and how can one dish contain so much history?
In short, ceviche peruano is a seafood dish typically made from fresh raw fish (although there are also versions with shellfish, such as a shrimp, or a combination of the two) cured in citrus juice and seasoned with red onion, chili pepper and cilantro.
"Any fresh fish is good for ceviche," Miguel Aguilar, a Peruvian chef who owns Surfish Bistro in Brooklyn, says. "On the coast, where it is most popular in Peru, there are many varieties of fish to choose from but you can also find it in the highlands and jungle. Trout is used in the highlands and paiche in the jungle."
But the magic happens when the citrus juice is added to the fish and the raw flesh, moist and translucent, becomes opaque and firm and absorbs the fresh, delicate flavor of the citrus.
Scientifically speaking, what happens is that the pH of the citrus rearranges the fish's proteins, much like the application of heat, making it more palatable while retaining its characteristic freshness.
Fresh and delightfully acidic, ceviche is usually accompanied by starchy vegetables. Although, as Miguel points out, recipes vary by region and the cook's taste.
Ceviche is usually accompanied by yucca, sweet potato, potato, cancha and corn, Miguel says. "In the north, they serve it with chifles; fried plantains similar to chips."
Layer by layer
Although ceviche is considered a heritage dish in Peru, its origins are still unclear - and this is where the archaeological dig begins.
The first layer that contributes to the complexity of ceviche is its indigenous past. In The Great Ceviche Book, it is recorded that the Quechuas of Inca times made ceviche-like dishes from marine products, chiles, salt and herbs, which, in some cases, were marinated with chicha (a fermented corn brew) or the acidic tumbo fruit.
However, there are no records of the word “ceviche” being used until the early 19th century. According to Maricel Presilla in his book Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America, it was in 1820 that a popular song dedicated to chicha listed cebiche (still the preferred spelling) among the country's national dishes.
Yet despite the general agreement on the link between Peru and ceviche some historians still believe that the dish may have an Asian or Ecuadorian origin.
The second layer is the result of interactions with European countries. Miguel points out: "The Spaniards introduced bitter orange and lemon to the continent."
Of course, these are not the only ingredients that ceviche borrowed from the old continent.
The extensive Italian migration also contributed to the dish, which is why "you now find ceviches with a touch of milk and parmesan cheese," he says.
The last layer of cultural sediment was formed by the Asian migration. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, many Chinese and Japanese men arrived in Peru to work in the haciendas.
These immigrants brought not only their dedication to work but also their culinary traditions.
The Japanese, for instance, were far more accustomed to dealing with raw fish and it was they who reduced the marinating time of the fish to retain more of its texture.
As such, Miguel points out, "each culture that arrived in Peru influenced ceviche".
A dish that unites
But these cultural layers would never have sedimented and popularized the way they did if it were not for the huariques - small traditional restaurants and Peruvian gastronomic refuges.
Here, ceviche was (and still is) prepared at affordable prices for the general population to enjoy and appreciate the creativity and ingenuity of the local cooks.
As time went by, Peruvian families adopted ceviche and transformed it into an emblem of the country, as well as a reason to get together on weekends and share recipes.
"Ceviche has always been a dish that unites the family", Miguel says. "Everyone gets together on weekends to prepare their version of it."
A tradition that is now part of world gastronomy; one which continues to expand as ingredients and cultural layers are added yet retains the character and soul of Peru.
"It is a great representation of what Peruvian cuisine gets right,"Monique Loayza, the general manager of Peru for Less, a travel agency that specializes in custom tours, says.
"The use of native ingredients (the fish, the chilies, the sweet potatoes) that don't seem to go together to create a dish that totally works and is completely original."