In Piura, on the northern coast of Peru, a region of arid brushland sandwiched between the Andes and the Pacific and punctuated by green, river-fed oases where mangoes and cacao grow, cebiches are bountiful and nourishing. Beautiful without artifice, they come to the table looking like edible sculptures, the irregular pieces of fish or seafood heaped high on plates generously garnished with hot boiled yuca and sweet potato (camote), toasted corn (cancha), and, often, boiled zarandajas, small white beans that are a staple in this region.
These are meals in themselves, enjoyed with refreshing clarito, a mild, fizzy corn chicha that could be compared to a young vinho verde. The combination of flavors and texture is masterful, every sip of the tangy chicha reinforcing the acidity of the lime juice, which is the seasoning heart of the cebiche. After consuming a substantial dish like this with a clay jar of clarito, a siesta is in order, and it is a lucky tradition that this is strictly a noon meal, a nod to ancient principles transplanted to colonial Peru, classifying fish as a cold food that could be dangerous when eaten at night.
Traveling to Piura, or just about anywhere on the Peruvian coast, and not taking the time to explore the picanterías, cebicherías, and makeshift eateries (huariques) that specialize in the iconic “noon” cebiche is like visiting Valencia and not eating paella. Cebiche is part of the fabric of coastal Peru, a symbol of regional identity that transcends time and joins cultures.
In Piura, firm-fleshed cabrillón (rock sea bass), succulent corvina, several types of grouper, oily bonito and caballa (mackerel) and concha negra (black clams oozing inky juice) are among the favorite marine ingredients for a proper cebiche. Cooks season it simply with salt and the freshly squeezed juice of tiny limes, most likely from the Chulucanas Valley, where they are justly famous for their tang and good flavor. Tossed with plenty of red onions and slivers of fiery limo pepper, the seafood makes it to the table in a flash, with barely enough time to become opaque through the action of the lime juice.
Long a popular offering in humble restaurants and an early morning pick-me-up at markets along the Peruvian coast, the lime-juice “cooked” cebiche has become not only a star of Peruvian cuisine, but the most popular Latin cooking technique to cross over to North America. Bright as the spotlight has become, however, it has not illuminated the obscure origins of the method, the etymology of its name, nor the reason for its various spellings (cebiche, ceviche, seviche) throughout Latin America.
When working on the Cebiche chapter of my cookbook “Gran Cocina Latina” (W.W. Norton, 2012), I chose to focus on the cebiches of Peru (thus the preferred Peruvian spelling), and its neighbor to the north, Ecuador. At first, I looked to the Philippines and Spain for the possible origins of the technique, wondering if the idea of preparing fish in citrus juice crossed the Pacific with the galleons that controlled Spain’s Asian trade through the port of Acapulco. I concluded, however, that Peru is the cradle of cebiche.
I considered the possibility that ancient Peruvians used the tart and perfumed juice of a fruit now called tumbo or curuba (Passiflora mollissima), a member of the Passiflora genus, to prepare fish and seafood. Having studied the pre-Inca peoples of Peru’s north coast, the Moche and the Chimu, I thought it plausible that one among them had the brilliant idea of flavoring raw clams or fish with hot pepper and a squeeze of tart fruit juice. I had seen tiny passion fruit and tumbo seeds that archaeologists had unearthed on Mocha sites side by side with hot pepper seeds and the remains of shellfish and fish bones. I also knew that the earliest Peruvians were no strangers to vinegar made from yuca roots or fermented corn chicha, which is also acidic and can coagulate the proteins of fish or seafood just like lime or bitter orange juice.
As plausible as this scenario seemed, I could not ignore the fact that cebiches are not “cooked” with anything of local origin, but with citrus juice from Old World trees brought by the Spaniards. This seems to indicate that the Spanish colonists either embraced an existing Peruvian technique, transforming it with familiar ingredients, or stumbled upon the method on their own. Anyone who marinates meat or fish in Latin America is bound to notice what acids do to proteins. And we Latin cooks marinate everything, having inherited this flavor-imparting practice from medieval Spanish cooking. Look at the Libre de Sent Sovi, a fourteenth-century Catalan cookbook, and you will find marinades for fish and seafood made with vinegar or the juice of limes or bitter oranges.
An interesting hypothesis formulated by the Peruvian historian Juan José Vega examines a related dimension of this Spanish connection. Vega claims that the word “seviche” is a Spanish deformation of the Arabic sibech, which means acid food and is the source of “escabeche.” Vega claims it was the female Moorish slaves (las moriscas) that the Spaniards brought to Peru as cooks and servants in the early sixteenth century who first added citrus juice to the pre- Columbian preparation of raw seafood seasoned with hot pepper and seaweed.
Unfortunately, the chronicles of the conquest of Perú yield no information about cebiches, though they do mention that ancient Peruvians ate raw fish. The writers of those chronicles, even the Peruvian-born El Inca Garcilaso, focused on the highlands, where the first Spanish capitals in the Andean region were located, not the coast, where cebiches must have originated. To my chagrin, while colonial cookbooks from Peru and elsewhere in the Americas have plenty of recipes for escabeches, they contain nary a reference to cebiches.
Perhaps legends surrounding the word can give us clues to its origin. In Peru you hear that cebiche was created by fishermen lost at sea who were forced to eat raw fish cooked with the juice of limes they had conveniently stowed onboard. I like to imagine them have a grand time, cutting off little bits of anchovetas as if for bait (cebo) and sprinkling them with lime and a bit of salt. What is telling about this story is that the fish for the cebiche is compared with cebo, bait. Perhaps the word was born of a creative compromise between cebo and escabeche, which is also prepared in an acid medium. In medieval Spanish, the word cebo also meant food, not just for fish, but for men. It came from the Latin word for food, cibus, and it was first documented in the twelfth-century Castilian poems of Gonzalo de Berceo: “And he blessed his cebo, when he wanted to eat.” This is my own grain of salt, or squeeze of lime juice, for the ongoing debate.
Much as I like the cibus connection, it seems that the word was originally spelled “seviche.” In La Mesa Peruana, El Libro de las Familias (The Peruvian Table, The Book of Families), a late nineteenth-century cookbook published in Arequipa, the author instructs the cook to prepare a fish or crayfish seviche in the morning to eat in the afternoon. Besides the use of the original spelling, the book shed lights on traditional aspects of cebiche preparation such as “overcooking.” Letting the seafood or fish rest in its tangy marinade for hours was common practice in some parts of Peru until a few year ago. Today, chefs consider it an abomination.
Long before exploring cebiche in its birthplace, I knew there was something magical about it. The late Peruvian chef Felipe Rojas Lombardi, my friend and mentor, spoke incessantly about the cebiches of Lima, his hometown. He dreamed of opening a cebichería in New York, his adopted home. That dream was realized in the mid 1990’s by one of his admirers, the Cuban chef Douglas Rodríguez, whose Chicama in the posh ABC building was named for a seaport north of the Peruvian city of Trujillo. The successful but short-lived Chicama was a revelation, with a broad variety of cebiches, most the product of Rodríguez’s wild imagination, served at a central counter.
Though Peruvian chefs, like their counterparts around the world, are beginning to play with the traditional concept of the cebiche, there is a purity to the original that I find seductive. Gastón Acurio, a celebrated Lima chef known for his imaginative take on Peruvian food, is almost reverent when speaking of cebiche. When I ate at his Lima cebichería La Mar soon after it opened (he now has branches all over Latin America and even in the U.S.), Acurio served nine cebiches ranging from a Japanese-Peruvian (Nikkei) inspired yellow fin with sesame oil and soy sauce (siyao) to a traditional pejerrey (Peruvian silverside) flavored with Andean yellow pepper (ají amarillo). Though presented with modern touches, all had a clean, pristine quality that distinguishes the best Peruvian cebiches.
Traditional and innovative cebiches also coexist comfortably at La Huaca Pucllana in San Isidro, one of Lima’s most beautiful restaurants. On its airy terrace, diners have an unobstructed view of a fifth-century pre-Inca adobe pyramid. At night, the site is dazzlingly illuminated, and the veranda is warmed with glowing charcoal braziers.
Owner Arturo Rubio and chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, who has since departed to open his own restaurants, Malabar and Amaz, came up with an ingenious method of searing crayfish on a hot stone that is brought to the table. When a waiter pours tangy cebiche marinade over the shrimp, the liquid evaporates on contact with the stone, rising in a plume of fragrant steam. (I was so impressed with the effect that I asked Arturo and Pedro Miguel for the recipe, and when I opened my restaurant Cucharamama, they presented me with 100 perfectly cut stones for this purpose.)
At Malabar and Amaz, Pedro Miguel uses Amazonian fish like doncella (Pseudoplatysoma fasciatum) and gigantic paiche (Arapaima gigans) in cebiches flavored with tiny peppers from the same region (ají charapita) and broad-leaf culantro, which in the Peruvian Amazon is called sacha culantro. I also enjoy Punta Sal, a popular, five-location chain of cebicherías, where owner Adolfo Perret Bermúdez serves cebiches and tiraditos seasoned with the assertive flavors of Piura, his native region.
Tiraditos, sashimi-like slices of raw fish that are seasoned like cebiches, owe much to Peru’s twentieth-century influx of Japanese immigrants, the most famous of whom is Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, the celebrated chef-owner of Matsuhisa in California and Nobu restaurants in New York and elsewhere. During a lovely dinner at my favorite Japanese restaurant, Toshiro’s in Lima, I discovered that its owner, the genial Toshiro Konishi, is more likely responsible for popularizing the tiradito. While working at Nobu’s Lima restaurant Matsuei, Toshi said, he created a new presentation for an antecedent dish from the north coast. Toshi’s immaculate tiradito treats sliced, white-fleshed fish with near reverence. Fresher fish would be swimming.
For a more casual but still intense raw fish experience, go to Sankuay (a.k.a. Chez Wong), where chef Javier Wong is a one-man cebiche band. Wong, who is of Chinese descent, runs the restaurant out of his home, and does everything—cooking and serving—with a white golf cap on his head and a cigarette hanging from his lips. One morning, several years ago, when Wong’s place was still a well-guarded secret and a kind of private cebiche club for the cognocenti, my friend Arturo Rubio took me for lunch at Sankuay. Large, meaty Peruvian flounder (lenguado) is the most prized fish for cebiche, and that day we found Wong slicing a huge specimen with amazing dexterity. He quickly tossed big, uneven pieces of the flesh with lots of salt, Peruvian hot pepper and lime juice, and served our cebiche ungarnished. It was delicious, and we ordered more.
That minimal presentation is worlds away from creative cebiche, which, like creative sushi, can contain all manner of ingredients. At private homes, upscale restaurants and small eateries all over Peru, I have eaten cebiches made with vegetables, chicken and duck. (The latter two, which are cooked, are considered traditional.)
One much-imitated, modern-day cebiche is flavored with milk and cheese, and a few years ago I went to El Callao, Lima’s port, in search of its birthplace, a small restaurant called La Cabaña de Maquila. El Callao is a fascinating city dotted with beautiful, time-ravaged old mansions and huariques (popular restaurants) where you can eat very well. (It is also a dangerous place to get lost, as we did looking for Maquila.)
The place looked like a beach shack, and owner Arturo García Calderón, a tall, rugged man then in his sixties, greeted us warmly. He took me in his tiny kitchen and demonstrated the famous recipe, which he created in 1984. He cut up a luscious piece of flounder into bite-size pieces, and placed it in a bowl with slivered red onion, parsley, hot pepper, lime juice, and grated parmesan cheese. Then he opened a can of evaporated milk, which he poured slowly into the cebiche while beating vigorously to make a creamy emulsion. We took a seat at a table overlooking the ocean and ate his cebiche. It was pretty good. Of course, I am not Italian and have no problems mixing cheese with seafood. And what Latin person does not love evaporated milk?
Whatever the ingredients, the origin of the word and the simple and ingenious cooking method, cebiches are delicious, whichever way you spell them – cebiches, ceviche, sebiche, seviche. If you love this ingenious Latin kitchen miracle, get out there and explore cebiche in its many manifestation in the place of its birth.
Photos by Maricel Presilla.