Controversies over the birthplace of certain dishes are part of the spice of life and landscape of any cuisine. A spirited discussion revolves around the origin of ceviches. This seafood favorite, made of raw fish and/or barely blanched shellfish marinated in citrus juices and laced with various adornments, many maintain, was bestowed upon the world at large via ancient Peru.
Perhaps the most romantic story holds that ceviche was invented so that an Incan emperor, high up in his Andean citadel in Cusco, could enjoy fresh fish despite his remote location from the sea. The fish, caught on the Peruvian coast, was first marinated in the tart juices of the native tumbo citrus fruit to preserve and flavor it, then carried by runners known as chasquis (CHAS-KEY) up to the hungry emperor.
Another story attributes the invention of ceviche to Peruvian fishermen, who would bring with them tumbo juice infused with chile peppers. They would pickle some of their catch to feed themselves during their long stretches at sea.
Or maybe it was Polynesian voyagers, traveling across the ocean to pre-Columbian Peru on wind-driven reed rafts, who introduced the notion of eating marinated raw fish; the custom was common in their Pacific island homes.
Peruvian food scholar Juan José Vega, who studied the influence on Peruvian cuisine of the Moorish slave cooks who arrived with the Spanish nobility in the sixteenth century, offers yet another theory. In his version, the slaves introduced to Peru a dish called sei-vech, made of fish marinated in the juice of ceuta (SAY-U-TAH) lemons, which they brought with them from the city of the same name in North Africa north east of Morocco and planted them in the New World.
Working with Peruvians and visiting their markets and restaurants has given me a different understanding of the delicacy of a properly made ceviche: I used to think it should be made the night before it was eaten or even longer. Instead, I now think of it more like sushi. Sushi and sashimi are, after all, eaten raw. Many ceviches are best when nearly raw so learning is never ending.
I first tasted ‘Conch Salad’ (a ceviche to be sure) in Key West, when I was engaged in the often insane business of opening a brand-new restaurant. One afternoon back then, a large shadow obscured the tropical light that spilled through the kitchen screen door. (It was like when you are skin diving in the ocean and a big fish swims behind you.) Then came a man’s voice. It was a booming bass, but singsong as well, with Bahamian inflections: “Hey. Hey. I’m Frank, the Conch Salad Man. I’ll sell you the world’s best conch salad.”
He pushed open the screen door and came into the kitchen, holding a big white pickle bucket brimming with conch salad. With a paper cup, he scooped up some for me to try. I tipped back a mixture of finely diced conch, tomatoes, red onions, Scotch bonnets, bell peppers, celery, citrus juices and herbs. The flavors of the sea were in there too.
His saltwater-stained heavy black glasses were held on with fishing line. His hands were thick and meaty, scarred and callused from heavy labor. He wore canvas shoes, military-style pants, and a white T-shirt. A long gold chain around his neck drew attention to a nasty scar that ringed his collarbone. When he scooped out more salad for each of the cooks and waiters working in my kitchen that day, I became a fan.
Ceviche. It’s cool.
For the vegetables:
1 red onion, halved and sliced into paper-thin half-moons
1/4 Cup sugar
1 sweet potato
1 star anise
1 lime, halved
2 ears corn, husked and cut into 1 1/2-inch-thick rounds
Lightly salt the sliced onion and set aside in a colander for about 15 minutes. When they begin to sweat, rinse them under cold water, then immerse them in cold water and refrigerate.
Add 2 tablespoons of sugar to a small pot, fill it with water, and add the sweet potato. Bring to a boil and cook until the potato is tender, about 35 minutes. Drain and refrigerate the sweet potato.
When it is cool enough to handle, peel the sweet potato, halve it lengthwise, and slice into half-moons. Reserve.
Add the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar to a large pot and fill it with water. Add the star anise. Squeeze in the lime juice, and add the lime halves. Bring to a boil, add the corn, and cook for 2 minutes; drain. Discard the star anise and limes. Set aside while you make the ceviche.
For the ceviche:
12 ounces sea bass fillets
12 ounces shrimp, peeled and deveined
12 ounces squid, cleaned
1/4 Cup fresh lime juice
1/4 Cup chopped cilantro
1/4 Cup chopped Italian parsley
1 Scotch bonnet chile, stemmed, seeded, and minced
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Tabasco to taste (optional)
Kosher salt to taste
Cut the sea bass into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Rinse well under cold water, cover, and chill.
Slice the shrimp into 1/4-inch pieces. Rinse well under cold water and set aside. Slice the squid into 1/4-inch-wide rings, then slice each squid ring into pieces. Rinse well under cold water.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Fill a large bowl with ice water. Put the shrimp and squid in a strainer and immerse them in the boiling water for about 10 seconds, then immediately immerse them in the ice-water bath. Chill for about 10 minutes, then drain.
Meanwhile, make the pickling juice: In a small bowl, whisk together the lime juice, herbs, Scotch bonnet, Worcestershire, and optional Tabasco.
Combine the chilled sea bass, shrimp, and squid in a medium bowl and toss well with the pickling juice. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Season the ceviche with salt. Arrange the ceviche in the middle of a serving platter, and arrange the sweet potato slices and corn rounds around the perimeter. Scatter the onion over all. Serve immediately.