Also spelled ceviche, seviche, or sebiche, the former being the English-speaking community’s preference, probably because of the pronunciation: SAY-VEE-CHAY.
Before being offered at tapas establishments, mid-range restaurants, bistros, and even fine dining locales, the simple cebiche is, and always will be, a seaside snack. Coastal Peruvians, like me, know that the freshest fish comes in that very morning, hence eating a cebiche should happen by lunch time, not later. That tradition is changing as more and more restaurants serve cebiche as an appetizer or an entrée during dinner service.
I was fortunate to spend my childhood summers in Pucusana, a fishing village located fifty kilometres south of Lima. The port sees hundreds of boats arrive at the crack of dawn, packed with men and the reaping of that day’s best catch. Pucusana is the perfect scenario to showcase the humble and delightful origins of cebiche. It is a very busy place during the summer, due to its proximity to Lima, and as the years pass, the number of food stalls along the seaside keep increasing. From fruit vendors, to ice cream stands, shaved ice, and even boiled corn on the cob with Serrano cheese. Yet the highlight is, and always will be, the stands, carts, and kiosks that sell cebiche.
Beautiful, plump, made to order with fish fresh from the pier, caught that very morning, sold just a few meters away from the sea. Raw fish is cooked naturally when marinated in lime juice, spiced with Peruvian aji (chilli) and Spanish onion, accompanied by some choclo (white Peruvian corn with large kernels) and a slice or two of sweet potato to counterbalance the acid and heat of the dish. The leche de tigre marinade (tiger’s milk) is equally as important as the rest of the dish. Not only does it provide the robustness to the dish, and reinforce how refreshing a cebiche can be on a hot summer’s day, but it is sometimes served or sold separately, to serve, among other things, as a hangover cure.
People like Doña Elvira sell cebiche and are passing down the tradition to their family (daughters, sons, grandchildren) to make cebiche by the beach the same way they’ve always made it. As with any good rendition, the key words are simple and fresh. At the stalls in Pucusana, you can see the different spices and condiments to add to the dish as it is prepared right in from of your eyes: ginger, coriander, yellow chilli, hot rocoto chili, garlic, a good heap of salt to accompany the red onions, the flowing sour lime juice. The other element that’s always present is cancha – toasted chulpe corn, essential for added saltiness and crunch.
In the words of Peru’s most famous chef, Gaston Acurio, “If the fish is fresh…there’s no such thing as a bad cebiche”.
As a Limeña (Lima native), I believe that enjoying a cebiche at the beach, sitting in the sand, or next to the pier, watching the ocean and kids at play, hearing the seagulls call as the pelicans fly by is a quintessentially coastal experience no one should miss. With an icy cold Inca Kola (Peruvian soda) or a beer in one hand, and a fork in the other, the day is at its best.
My story on Peru’s national dish will hopefully take you on a journey. From the humble beginnings of the traditional cebiche made-to order by the ports, along the beaches of Peru, to trendy cebicherias in Lima and abroad. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be showcasing where this dish comes from, the different takes on it, and then feature appetizing interviews with Peruvian chefs making a name for themselves around the world, from Peru to Singapore, to the US and the UK.