The Many Incarnations of Ceviche

by Jami English
June 2007

Ceviche, Seviche or Cebiche? Mexican, Chilean, Peruvian or Ecuadorian? Although the jury is still out on the dish’s origin, the technical definition of ceviche is (almost) universally agreed upon: simply, it is fish denatured, or “cooked” by a source of acidity, most commonly citrus, rather than heat. The common thread connecting ceviches ends there. Myriad possibilities exist for its contents and preparations.

The word ceviche may be derived from “escabeche,” the Spanish word for marinade. The dish most likely originated in Latin American coastal communities out of necessity: before refrigeration was readily available, any surplus of freshly caught fish was bound to go to waste after a day or two in the hot sun. Citrus was always abundantly available, its acid conveniently serving as both a cooking and preservation agent.

Peruvian ceviche is arguably the simplest and most classic form of the dish. This version uses lime juice and onion as a base and a firm–fleshed white fish, traditionally shark, sole or corvina (sea bass). Octopus and shellfish, particularly shrimp, clams and mussels, are also common ingredients depending on region. The Ecuadorian adaptation uses tomato in addition to citrus and is finished with a crunchy popcorn or nut garnish. Mexican ceviche gets an extra acidic boost from sliced onions and Panama adds heat with scotch bonnet (habanero) peppers.

Ceviche is to Latin America what sashimi is to Japan and crudo to Italy: an exhibition of the beauty of local seafood in its purest form. Unlike heat, which tends to alter seafood’s innate properties, acid gently poaches the fish, breaking down its muscle protein to the point where the once translucent skin becomes firm and opaque. This process is one of the best ways to showcase the flavor and texture of a truly fresh piece of fish.

The amount of time the seafood is allowed to marinate in the acid can make or break a ceviche. In the early days of ceviche, fish was left to marinate for several hours, but today the pickling times are almost entirely dependent on the type of fish being used. In his eponymous restaurant in Dallas, Stephan Pyles serves a first course tasting of six ceviches, ranging from sea scallop with golden tomato to branzino with avocado and tomatillo. His traditional Ecuadorian Shrimp Ceviche is an exception to the raw fish rule. Shrimp must be marinated for several hours in order to cook through; Chef Pyles speeds the process along by steeping the shrimp in just boiled water before he marinates them in a lime-tomato mixture for 30 minutes, yielding a fully cooked but especially tender product.

Richard Corbo references Latin American flavors in his Tuna Ceviche with jicama, ancho chile peppers and cilantro, but he tones down the biting acidity characteristic of traditional ceviche by using the subtle sweetness of orange juice in place of more sour lime or lemon. The dish is similar to a tartar in that the tuna is chopped and mixed with jicama, cara-cara orange segments and olive oil infused with orange zest but the mixture is served on top of a caramelized agave syrup and orange juice glaze which gives it a distinct ceviche twist.

In his vegetarian version of ceviche, Hector Santiago quickly blanches hon shimeji mushrooms and celery before flash-pickling them in a lime-ginger marinade. The otherwise mild ingredients are transformed by the citrus treatment and become the stars of a bold dish that rivals any fish-based ceviche in the liveliness and verve for which it is known.