Cebiche, Fresh King of Latin America

You may think that Cebiche is just a dish of raw fish or shellfish cooked in citrus juices, with chillies, onions, herbs and other garnishes. It is a lot more than that. It’s the Fresh King of Latin America.

Historians have argued that its origins trace back to Spain, Asian and/or Arabic lands. Myths and legends attribute Cebiche to hungry Peruvian fisherman lost at sea.

Whichever the truth, Pacific-Coast Latin American countries have a long tradition of Cebiche. It is Peru’s National Dish, and it is held in high regard in Ecuador and Chile. México, Colombia, Venezuela and many other countries in Central and South America also have seafood dishes similar to Cebiche.

Its lineage may be unknown, but that hasn’t stopped Cebiche from conquering taste buds beyond the barriers of Latin America. The boom of Latino cuisine has spread the word, and love, for Cebiche around the world.

But before we get into more detail, let’s address the elephant in the room: the spelling.

One name, too many spellings.

Your eye might be twitching like mine did when I first read Cebiche spelt with a b. If I didn’t trust and respect Chef Maricel Presilla this much, I would have kept writing it with a v.

Chef Presilla is also a fierce culinary historian and author. Her book, and work of forty years, Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America won the James Beard Cookbook of the Year Award in 2013.

In the Cebiches chapter of her book, she describes what is known about its history, and how the origins of the word can be traced back to different sources. From a possible deviation of the Spanish escabeche (also food cooked in acidic juices) to the Arabic sibech (the parent word for escabeche that translates to acidic food).

She also explains that records show multiple spelling variations: sebiche, seviche, ceviche and cebiche.

Finally, Chef Presilla confirms that the preferred spelling is Cebiche. Some of the most celebrated Latin American Chefs agree with her. The evidence is on their restaurant names and menus. Who am I to argue with them?

Whichever the spelling, it is delicious and there’s no contest to that.

My take on Chef Maricel Presilla’s Ecuadorian Shrimp Cebiche with Peanuts in the Style of Jijipapa.
Photo by Maikel Popić.

If only my Grandmother had known.

Some argue that the fish in Cebiche is not cooked, because there is no heat involved in the process. Ligia, my grandmother, was one of them. She never let me eat anything raw because of the fear of bacteria. I can still remember her nagging my mother over Roast Beef. She also didn’t like me calling her Abuela (Grandmother), her heart was too young for that.

While Ligia was right in worrying about bacteria, marinating fish in citrus alters the molecules of protein to the point of cooking without a heat source. She might be looking at me with a stern face from wherever she is, but it is science.

That process is called denaturation and occurs to any protein when it is exposed to altering agents. Heat is the most common. But acid (citrus juice or vinegar), salt (in high concentration) and even air can modify the composition of proteins and cook an ingredient, to a certain extent.

Robert Wolke’s article on the Washington Post covers the topic of denaturation extensively. I recommend reading it if you’re still not convinced.

Fresh king.

What may seem indisputable to some, it may not be to others. Thus, to be on the safe side, I shall state the obvious: Fish is the King of this dish, and it must always be fresh.

Not only does fresh fish reduces the risk of bacteria, but it also sets the basis of the main flavour you must taste in a Cebiche: Fish.

There are no limitations in the type of fish when it comes to Cebiche: oily or white-fleshed, big or small. Two recommendations from Chef Presilla (more on her book): use firm-flesh fish that will hold itself when soaked in the marinade, and buy sashimi-grade fish from your fishmongers to guarantee the highest level of freshness.

Shellfish Cebiche is equally great. It is very popular in coastal towns in Ecuador and it is served with a soupy broth of tomatoes and shellfish. Ecuadorians blanch the shrimp before mixing it with the other ingredients. The blanching liquid becomes the base of the broth.

Salt, Acid, Heat… Sharpness, Herbs and Garnishes.

In her book-turned Netflix success, Samin Nosrat establishes that the key to good cooking is mastering these four elements: Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. When it comes to Cebiche, we need three of those (to start with).

Salt

When it comes to salt, the cook has the choice to experiment with rock, flakes, fine, pink or black to create layers of flavour and texture.

Acid

The value of citrus is two-fold. First and foremost, it is the cooking vehicle as it denatures the fish proteins as explained earlier.

Heat

As yin needs yang, the freshness of the citrus juice and herbs need heat for balance. In Cebiche, that heat comes from chillies.

Chef Douglas Rodríguez describes in the revised edition of The Great Ceviche Book that, in addition to fish, salt, citrus and chillies, Cebiche has three other key ingredients: onions, herbs and garnishes.

Cebiche at Tanta. Santiago, Chile. 2015.
Onions

For sharpness. A highly contrasting flavour and texture that breaks through the acidic of the citrus juice.

Red onions tend to be the first choice, but shallots, green onions and chives work perfectly well with certain fish and shellfish. 

Herbs

Herbs contribute to the fresh nature of Cebiche, and while Chef Rodríguez also recommends black mint, Peruvian huacatay and culantro.

No offence to Julia Child, or Erin The Cilantro Hater, but Chef Rodríguez does confirm that Cilantro (Coriander) is the herb of choice.

Garnishes

Cebiche is not complete without the garnishes. These add texture and taste, yes. But most importantly, they offer the palate a break from all the acidity and intense flavours on the Cebiche itself.

Toasted corn, nuts and root vegetables such as sweet potato and carrots are the perfect companions. 

Learn from my mistakes.

I’ve said before that I don’t excel at reading instructions, so there are plenty of things I have learned with trial and error. Here are a few things that would have saved me a lot of perfectly fresh fish, and a good amount of time:

  • Cebiche can be overcooked. It is not a dish that you can make ahead of time. Make sure to take that into account if you are serving it as a starter.
An example of overcooked fish in citrus. Photo by Maikel Popić
  • Always use freshly squeezed citrus. If you do this far in advance, the acid in the juice will dissipate, affecting both the cooking and aromas in the dish.
  • Not all citrus juices are harsh enough to cook the fish. If using grapefruit or passion fruit, you need to combine it with a stronger juice. Lime and bitter oranges are best to create the acidic base.
  • The mild heat from a Jalapeño is enough to enhance the citrus flavour and the silky texture of the fish. However, a more aromatic pepper, like Peruvian Aji Amarillo or Chilean Aji Cristal will elevate the dish further.
  • If like me, you suffer from sensitivity to raw onions, there are many techniques that can help tone down the intense flavour. What has worked best for me is soaking the onions in brine (highly-salted lukewarm water) for 10 minutes, stirring and rubbing the onions occasionally, and then rinsing them under plenty of cold water.
  • Where the recipe calls for ingredients with which you are not familiar, try first with store-bought options (where possible). The Ecuadorian Shrimp Cebiche I made requires homemade peanut butter. I didn’t have access to the right peanuts at the time, and no experience in making the butter. The result was a crumbly tasteless paste, extremely far from the goal for this wonderful Cebiche.
Ecuadorian Shrimp Cebiche
I should have bought the peanut butter. Photo by Maikel Popić

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