Peruvian Ceviche is Not Mexican Ceviche

Pervuain cevicheI don’t know if I was ever more disappointed in myself than when I realized that I’d never cooked ceviche before…

…because goodness knows I’ve eaten more than my fair share. I basically had it every other day for two months in Lima, Peru and almost order it (and am disappointed) when I see it on menus in Montreal.

But I’m most disappointed in myself because I got into cooking to learn to make the delicious foods I was eating in Toronto restaurants. This was back when I was in first and second year university and gave myself a lunch budget of $10 a week to eat out at some kind of restaurant I’d never experienced before.

It was how I discovered Vietnamese pho’ noodle soup, Korean bibimbap, Thai basil curry, Chinese har gow, Jamaican jerk chicken, West Indian channa roti and spicy Nepalese chicken. I didn’t have the money to eat out more often, and I wanted to know exactly what I was putting into my body (and create a healthier version), so I found recipes and went to work in my kitchen.

Years later, I’m a better cook (and eater) for it, I believe.

Which is why the disappointment that I never tried to make ceviche.

Was it the raw fish that scared me? No. I give sushi classes, for goodness sake. And I’ve eaten great vegetarian “ceviche” in Huaraz, Peru made with beans.
Was it juicing all those limes? No. I could use bottled (sacrilege to some but a lifesaver to others).
Was it all the work? No. Ceviche takes about 5-25 minutes depending on the fish or seafood and the recipe.

I think it was the fact that I knew I couldn’t get the same fish here. Montreal has a pretty lacklustre selection of fish, and it’s pricey. Corvhina (the king of ceviche) isn’t always sustainable and it’s not exported here, as far as I know. If it were, it’d probably be prohibitively expensive. There’s sea bass and porgy and even local turbot, but none of these have the same mouthfeel and tenderness and flavour of corvhina.

But I could make shrimp or mussel or scallop ceviche, right? Sure, but those involve a bit more prep and seemed more complicated. This is where laziness kicked in.

Until recently, when I pitched a television show on a local seafood segment and had to master ceviche before next Monday. This would require some testing.

I’d pitched a scallop ceviche recipe using Iles-de-la-Madelein scallops. But first off I wanted to create the perfect leche de tigre (lime, salt and sometimes red onion, cilantro, hot peppers and garlic, depending on the recipe). I knew what it was supposed to taste like, but not the best way to make it. So I started with a recipe from Gaston Acurio, the ceviche master (his lunch-only restaurant La Mar in Lima was the best ceviche I’ve ever had). It called for blending lime, salt, red onion, cilantro, garlic and ice cubes and then marinating 1/2″ cubes of fish in this combination.

The Difference Between Peruvian and Mexican Ceviche (and all other South and Central American ceviches)

This is Peruvian-style ceviche. It’s not Mexican style. There’s no avocado involved. There are no corn tortillas stuck in it. It’s not North American “fancy” ceviche with silly grapefruit or orange segments. The picture above uses lemon verbena leaves and a Thai chili pepper, but it’s supposed to have cilantro, fat white corn and an ají amarillo. Good luck finding that fresh (the chili and the corn).

And it’s no Aruban ceviche, neutred down chili-wise for tourists and/or made with lemon juice instead of limes.

The first big problem, though, was that I couldn’t get 1/2″ cubes because my sustainable sea bass wasn’t big enough. So I’d cut down on the marinating time. That would change the texture of the fish, I knew, but there was no alternative.

The second was that the fish was so tender and fatty that a bunch of it fell apart while cutting and the bigger chunks stayed tough and fairly translucent, even after 30 minutes. I’d bought it whole so it was at its freshest and filleted it myself. The skin peeled off fairly easily (thank goodness) and I got to roast the leftover flesh and vertebrae for a treat, but it was a time-consuming, messy process. I’d also tried Pangasius, which tasted like muck. The texture was awful. And I’d bought another whole dory and had the fishmonger fillet it, but by the time it was done, there was about a 1/2 cup of meat since most of the weight was in the head (which I had to pay for but couldn’t use for ceviche).

The third problem was that in Lima, most ceviche chefs make their leche de tigre to order. They place a drop of it on the back of their hand and lick it off to test for the right amount of saltiness. But all these recipes were just saying (add a little salt, or salt to taste) and that really didn’t give me a starting point. I knew ceviche was often extremely salty, yet what home cook would add a teaspoon of salt when told to salt to taste?

The second biggest problem with Acurio’s recipe was the colour. The chili and cilantro made the leche de tigre marinating juices a brownish, reddish, greenish swamp colour. I wanted a clear liquid that turned cloudy as it “cooked” the fish. To me, that’s ceviche.

And the biggest problem with Acurio’s recipe was the taste. It was way too lime-y. You’re supposed to use those ice cubes to lessen the acidity of the marinade. But it’s a balance that depends on how long you marinate the fish (e.g. how much of the ice cubes melt) and how big your garlic clove is. Mine was huge. So the whole flavour of the marinade was overwhelmed by garlic.

The Winner

After a week of planning for Ceviche Take 2, I decided I was going to make this easier on myself and just get the leche de tigre right. So I used pre-cooked, frozen Nordic shrimp (sustainable little pink ones from Quebec). Because they were cooked, there was no risk of salmonella from under-marinating them. They’re also naturally salty, so I’d have a harder time under-seasoning. And I wouldn’t have to aadd ice cubes, since there’d be little bits of ice stuck to them from having been in the freezer. I’d just add a little tap water if necessary, and I could worry less about the temperature rising to a temperature that promoted bacterial growth (again because the shrimp were pre-cooked).

So I used this recipe from the blog Laylita.

And it worked. If I’d used fish instead of shrimp, I would have upped the salt quantity, but with the shrimp, I didn’t even salt the leche de tigre. I salted the onions. And I rinsed the shrimp quickly in cold water instead of soaking it (I didn’t want to lose all its flavour since it wouldn’t benefit from being slightly brined like chunkier pieces of fish).

The colour was right. There was no blending. And it took fifteen minutes total (because the shrimp had to thaw a little). Now I just have to try it with scallops. And I have to braise the sweet potato slices in mandarine orange juice. The trick, as a chef in Lima told me, is to use an orange-flavoured drink powder like Tang to give it a super-sweet flavour to contrast the sourness of the lime. But I like it just fine simply steamed or boiled, and for luxury I’ll just simmer it in unsweetened orange juice until the juice reduces to a syrup and the sweet potato is tender but not falling apart. I even over-reduced once, and the charred corners of the sweet potato where it almost burnt got an orange-caramel flavour with a deliciously chewy texture.

Have I found the ultimate ceviche recipe? Maybe not. But I’m on the right track. And now that I’ve broken through my ceviche barrier, I’m no longer afraid to experiment.

Was it an easy job? No. Pero, fue delicioso? Claro que sí. 


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