Ceviche: Multifarious Incarnations of Deliciousness

The Genre: Food

Do you read into your food? Do you look to the colors, the smells, the textures before you dig in? Do you analyze its history in order to fully appreciate its flavor? Are you the kind of person who uses words like “bold,” “full,” and “earthy” shortly before the room fills with groans and a called out, “We just wanted to know if it had tomatoes in it, Sharon”? If so, you’re either much more knowledgeable about food than I am, or you’re really good at bluffing. Let’s work under the latter assertion for a moment, and tell me what you think of these little morsels, courtesy of Gustavo Arellano:

There is a burrito sold in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights that’s beyond cosmic, that’s as close to touching God as finding Jesus on a tortilla. (139)

Manuel’s Special: . . . wrapped in a flour tortilla that, if laid flat, can serve as swaddling cloth for a puppy. (139)

Eating the burrito is like eating a living, breathing organism—you can feel the burrito’s ingredients sigh inside with each bite, each squeeze. (141)

Their chile relleno burrito nearly squirts congealed cheese if so much as a finger grazes it; it’s more dairy than wheat or even pepper, but legions of Angelenos work off hangovers with its loving caress. (152)

Now, I don’t know if you noticed, but all of those quotes came within the space of 13 pages—and three of the four were within just three pages of each other. We are talking about major food love here, people, and it’s from a book called Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, wherein the food love is not only intense, but informative. Taco USA tracks the movement of Mexican cuisine into and throughout America, from its humble beginnings to its current Bell ringings. Yes, the Taco Bell taco lives strong in the hearts—mostly arteries—of many, but even that titan had to start somewhere.

But ignore all of that. We have bigger fish to fry—or, rather, marinate—first.

The Main Character: Ceviche

Ceviche is a seafood dish absent from Arellano’s work (though this is no slight on the book, as he had a wide range of topics to cover already without going into a probably-not-originally-Mexican dish that is doing somewhat less than “conquering” America). The name of the game is fish, and the star players are lime and hot pepper, though the other ingredients vary as widely as the places where it is served, as demonstrated by any quick Google search for “ceviche recipe.”  Three facets remain common among the variations, however: raw, fresh, and cold.

IMG_0721 Sharpened

Ceviche consumed by the author at Mi Pequeña Hacienda in Lexington, KY, sporting primarily shrimp and tomatoes, garnished with avocado and a stick of celery. Poor quality of photograph may be attributed to lighting conditions and eagerness of photographer to just get to eat it already.

The Backstory: How our Player Came to Be

The dish also boasts a rich and vivid history, which one might even deign to call “bold” or “full.” Although cevicherías (places that primarily serve ceviche, named in the style of tortillerías and taquerías) now meander their way up to Mexico from Argentina (Rodriguez 3), the dish’s place of origin is disputed, with the contenders ranging from Mexico, Peru, Mesoamerica, or islands in the South Pacific (Ross 171), to Ecuador, Polynesia, or Arabia (Rodriguez 3). One particular account traces the history of the word ceviche through the Arabic word sibech (denoting acidic food), going on to explain that Moorish women who were taken as spoils of war to Granada were from there sent to Peru, where they added ingredients such as lemon to a dish prepared by the pre-Hispanic Peruvians, which eventually developed into what we now know as ceviche (Ariansen Cespedes).

Peruvian ceviche

Peru, one of the strongest claimants to ceviche’s origin, boasts a ceviche style composed of “diced white fish and onions cooked in lime juice (and seasoned) and accompanied with Peruvian corn . . . and sweet potatoes” (“Discover Peruvian Ceviche with Maria“).

The Plot: Our Hero’s Plight

But if ceviche has spread so widely that its own country of origin is hotly debated, where is it going? The answer to this might be “Not very far,” if Arellano is to be believed. Having been party to a conversation with this master of snark, however, I imagine his response was at least partially tongue-in-cheek when he told LA Weekly’s Inky Squid blog, “Americans have an aversion to fresh seafood and ceviche. It will never take off” (Soloman).

The dish has had its ups and downs, to be sure. Being prepared with raw fish, it must be made quickly to preserve freshness and remove the possibility of food poisoning. This makes the marination process intensely important; in one study, within only five minutes of being submerged in lime juice, a sample of mahi-mahi contaminated with several times the maximum infectious dose of cholera-causing bacteria had 99.9% of said bacteria killed (Mata, Vives, and Vicente 479). In fact, the authors asserted, “In the face of an epidemic of cholera, consumption of ceviche prepared with lime juice would be one of the safest ways to avoid infection with V. cholerae” (479).

America does seem to be enjoying its ceviche, despite the naysayers and the sticks-in-the-mud who only trust food cooked with heat. As the taste for Mexican cuisine has broadened its hold over the US, so too has ceviche encroached its way into the country, appearing not only in Mexican restaurants but also in its own chain. That’s right: ceviche hit the big leagues in the US with the help of chef Gastón Acurio and his multinational La Mar Cebicheria Peruana chain (meaning “The Sea Peruvian Cevichería“), bringing the cevichería into new territory in the American West (Barclay). Our only regret, as Americans, should be that we did not encourage ceviche’s entrance sooner; Acurio’s La Mar restaurants were already successfully established in Mexico City, Madrid, and more by the time we caught onto the sensation.

Acurio and ceviche

Chef Acurio and his famous ceviche, also Peruvian in style.

The Question: Mystery Afoot

Of course, the people of Mexico were much quicker to pick up on the ceviche trend—several centuries ago (Bayless, Brownson, and Bayless 11). The dish has ingrained itself into Mexican cuisine with the kind of surety that only comes from being age-old, which is part of what makes its substantial lack of entry into American food culture that much more bizarre. As Arellano explains many times in his book (and finally returning to the point I began so many words ago, at the top of this page), Americans just can’t get enough of Mexican food—so what gives with ceviche? Well, the omnipresence of stereotypes may be to blame (surprise, surprise). When your friend says, “I’m going out for Mexican,” do you ever picture raw seafood? It’s unlikely. Likewise, when you tell your friend, “I’m going out for raw seafood,” they probably imagine you’re talking about sushi, even though many types of sushi are cooked. And there you have it. Yes, Mexican food has worked its way into American culture, but largely in the way we want to see it; we expect tortillas, and we receive tortillas. Glorious, warm discs, sometimes embossed with the face of Jesus they may be, but as much as we praise them and give them (and other Mexican food currently popularized in the United States) our love, we forget that there is more to Mexican cuisine. Maybe it’s time to start thinking fish, and not just the kind you put in a taco.

Mexican ceviche

Mexican ceviche is also a good way to show both aesthetic appeal and patriotism, with many options for creating a green, white, and red dish.

If you want to branch into alternative Mexican cuisine, there truly is no better dish with which to begin. Ceviches in Mexico are typically characterized by chile, cilantro, and tomato, often served with or on top of tortilla chips or saltines; like any ceviche, though, the style of Mexican ceviche varies widely across various regions. One particularly interesting take on it is ceviche de conchas negras, or black conch ceviche, made from patas de mula—literally “mule’s feet,” or as English-speakers would say it, blood clams (Wu).

Concha Negra Ceviche with White Beans

Ceviche de conchas negras is given its distinctive color by the blood clams from which it is made.

The Conclusion: A Fond Farewell

Ceviche, like revenge, is a dish best served cold—and I would not hold it against you if revenge is what you desired first after suffering through my wordplay. But if you would be so kind, I would recommend trying out the ceviche first. And second. And third. There are so many variations from so many locations that, unless you dislike seafood  in general, it is nearly impossible to say “I don’t like ceviche.” Somewhere, somehow, there has probably been a variation tailored perfectly to your tastes. So, go off, try out a few, come back, and then stab me before I type out a bad pun.

After all, a bad seafood pun can be a reel pain in the bass.

If you’d like to see Chef Acurio prepare his famed ceviche, view the video below:

For new ceviche chefs, here’s an easier method: