The most persuasive theory for the origin of the word ceviche – raw fish ‘cooked’ with citrus, salt and spices – relates to escabeche, a similar preparation made with cooked fish, derived from the Persian/Arabic word sikbaj, meaning ‘vinegar stew’, a dish that travelled to Spain with the Moors.
In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors in Peru, already familiar with escabeche, would have come across a similar local dish, made with raw fish and tumbo (banana passionfruit) and may have corrupted the word further, to ceviche. While proudly claiming ceviche as a Peruvian dish, chef/ restaurateur Martin Morales admits that “back then, before the Incas, Peru didn’t really exist: it was made up of seven to 10 ‘cultures’ –dynasties – of which the Moche was one.”
Despite occupying unpromising, desert-like terrain between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes, the Moche managed to farm maize, beans and other crops by adapting mountain streams into irrigation channels. They were also expert fishermen, fishing from rafts made from woven reeds and preserving their catch with tumbo and aji amarillo, their indigenous hot pepper.
The earliest ceviche, then, was being made a thousand years before the arrival of the Spanish. These days, the acidity of lime replaces tumbo in most Peruvian ceviches. There is an infinite number of recipes, says Morales, adding that there is one – ceviche clásico – that every cevicheria and restaurant, apart from fine-dining places, serves.
“Often, a restaurant will have a separate counter for ceviche, which is good not just for food safety but for banter and theatre as well. And it’s served from trolleys and market stalls, all over the country, often with a shot glass of tiger’s milk on the side. There are 492 national dishes in Peru – more than any other country – but if one dish stands out, it’s ceviche.
“And, although the ingredients might vary from province to province, 100% of Peruvians know a recipe for ceviche clásico.”
The best ceviche starts with very fresh fish: traditionally, it is served only at lunch, when the fish is at its freshest. It is cut into cubes to increase its surface area – Morales cuts his fish on a 45-degree bias to increase it further – and sprinkled with salt “to open the pores,” as he says. The fish is then plunged into leche de tigre – ‘tiger’s milk’ – garlic, ginger, chilli, celery, coriander and salt steeped in lime juice, then strained before being acquainted with the fish.
Although ceviche started as a method of preservation, modern versions, in the age of refrigeration, are rather different. Rather than allowing the fish to ‘cook’ completely in the tiger’s milk, the ceviche is marinated for just a couple of minutes, so that the inside of the fish chunks remain raw, giving the dish contrasting flavours and textures. “You need to give customers their ceviche at just the right point in the curve, when the chemical reactions produce an explosion of flavours,” says Morales.
Leave it too long, and the fish will become tough and opaque – “although you’ll get great tiger’s milk!” he adds. The heat comes from aji limo, a close relative of the scotch bonnet and habanero peppers. Morales imports them frozen from Peru but says you can use sliced Dutch red chillies for colour and a habanero in the marinade for heat and flavour instead. “Just remember to take it out before serving,” he counsels.
He garnishes the dish in the traditional way: sweet potato, cooked in orange juice and cinnamon – although Morales says you can just boil it and peel it – and cooked kernels of choclo, giant corn (available frozen from www. solandinomarket.co.uk). The starchy textures of the sweet potato and corn balance the sharp, punchy flavours of the ceviche, and are good for mopping up the juices.
Morales assembles the dish on the counter at the original Soho branch of Ceviche, sprinkling a little more aji limo and fresh chopped coriander over the top. His eyes brighten as he spears a piece of fish: it is clear that ceviche is something of which he will never tire. “It’s a phenomenal dish: it smashes you in the mouth with zing and zest.”
Martin Morales’ ceviche clásico
Ingredients for each portion
100g sea bass, cut into 1.5 cm cubes
50g red onion, very thinly sliced, washed in cold water
4g celery, finely chopped
20g cooked sweet potato (see below)
20g cooked choclo (giant corn kernels)
¼ aji limo chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
A few coriander sprigs, leaves finely chopped
1 baby gem lettuce leaf
60ml tiger’s milk (see below)
For the tiger’s milk:
A 3cm piece of fresh peeled ginger, cut in half
¼ garlic clove, cut in half
1 sprig of coriander, roughly chopped
Juice of 2 limes
Pinch of salt
¼ aji limo chilli, deseeded and roughly chopped
¼ celery stalk, roughly chopped
For the sweet potato:
20g sweet potato, peeled and cut into small cubes
25ml orange juice
¼ cinnamon stick
1. Simmer the sweet potato with the orange juice, cinnamon and water. Cook until soft, remove from the water and reserve.
2. For the tiger’s milk, place the ginger, garlic, coriander and lime juice into a bowl. Stir, then leave to infuse for 10 minutes.Strain the mixture through a sieve into another bowl. Add the salt and the aji limo chilli, mix thoroughly and taste to ensure the balance of flavours is correct.
3. Sprinkle the fish with the salt and leave for a minute, then pour the tiger’s milk over the fish and leave to marinade for 2 minutes. Add the celery and onion and mix gently with a spoon.
4. Arrange the lettuce leaf over the plate and place the fish on top. Sprinkle over the coriander and aji limo chilli. Serve immediately, with the choclo and sweet potato on the side.