Ceviche is seafood that has been “cooked” by marinating it in an acidic liquid, usually citrus juice, rather than by applying heat. The acid changes the protein in the seafood so that it softens and turns opaque, but doesn’t lose its freshness. But acid won’t kill bacteria and parasites as well as heat, so shop for the freshest, cleanest seafood. (In its native habitat, ceviche is usually eaten for brunch or lunch and it’s a popular beach snack. Cevicherias often close around 4 pm because the morning catch is either sold out or no longer fresh by late afternoon.) Tiger’s milk (leche de tigre) is the leftover ceviche marinade served in a small glass. Sometimes mixed with vodka, it is considered a great cure for hangovers.
Although popular throughout Latin America, only Peru has declared ceviche part of its national heritage and proclaimed a holiday in its honor. Many believe that ceviche originated in Peru during the Spanish colonization of the new world. Peruvian authorities, however, point out that Peruvians were marinating raw seafood long before Europeans arrived on the continent. They note that the Moche, a coastal civilization that flourished in northern Peru 2,000 years ago, marinated fish in fermented passion fruit juice, and that the Incas, who lived in coastal communities in both Peru and Ecuador, seasoned their fish with sea salt and aji chile peppers and cured it in the acidic juice of tumbo, a tart tropical fruit, or marinated it in an Andean fermented beverage called chicha.
When Spanish finally did appear, however, they brought an important addition to ceviche cuisine, citrus fruits, and lime juice became the acid of choice. The dish, or so one theory goes, was brought to Peru by Moorish women from Granada who accompanied the Spaniards. Lima was the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru and thus distributed the dish to other regions where it was incorporated into regional cuisines by use of local flavors and ingredients.
On the other hand, ceviche may be a distant relative of the well-known Mediterranean preparation of fried fish with vinegar called escabeche (see pickled shrimp). The acidulation of fish in ceviche might have reminded the Spaniards of the escabeche they had grown up with at home. Claims have also been made for the Polynesian Islands in the South Pacific, where poisson cru, raw tuna marinated in coconut milk, is a local delicacy.
Although not native to Mexico, ceviche has been part of Mexican coastal cooking for centuries. Shrimp, octopus, squid, tuna or mackerel, combined with avocado, tomatoes and coriander, are typical ingredients of Mexican ceviche. There also is a strong ceviche tradition in El Salvador, where ceviche de concha negra (black clams) is so dark that it appears nearly black. Ceviche is also popular in Costa Rica, Panama, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and south Florida, where a favorite local dish, conch salad, marinates fresh conch in lime juice with chopped onion, celery, bell pepper and diced hot pepper. Shrimp ceviche with tomato sauce is typical of Ecuador and halibut is the ceviche fish of choice in Chile, marinated in lime and grapefruit juices.
Peru continues to have the most elaborate ceviche cuisine. Traditional Peruvian ceviche uses sea bass marinated in lime or bitter orange (naranja agria) juice, served with corn on the cob and sweet potato. But in Peru today, ceviche and escabeche exist side by side, along with tiradito, a hybrid of sashimi and ceviche invented by the large community of Japanese immigrants. Tiradito, in which strips of raw fish are marinated more briefly in citrus, “has recently emigrated northward to the elite New York City restaurant Nobu, a temple to sushi run by a Japanese from Lima” (Raymond Sokolov, The Cook’s Canon).