x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Ceviche with a smile

Food Now that sushi has lost its cutting-edge cachet, ceviche, its South American culinary relation, is having its moment.

Ceviche utilises the acidic juices of citrus fruits to prepare the fish.
Ceviche utilises the acidic juices of citrus fruits to prepare the fish.

Do you remember when sushi was widely considered revolting? It may seem as far off as the moon landings nowadays, but there was a time when, beyond East Asia, eating raw fish was seen as a bizarre Japanese peccadillo. But how times have changed. Sushi and sashimi are so popular worldwide that even terminally unadventurous eating places like airports offer it for sale, often made from previously frozen fish in a way that would rightly horrify Japanese purists. While it's great to see how people are loosening up when it comes to accepting novel foods, could this ubiquity perhaps be too much of a good thing? Sushi is now so widespread and familiar that its once red-hot fashionability appears to be somewhat on the wane. While uncooked fish is still widely regarded as an extremely healthy foodstuff, it is apt to get a little (dare I say it?) boring if the quality of the fish and the preparation isn't absolutely exemplary. As jaded palates look elsewhere for new taste sensations, it looks like ceviche, sushi's distant Latin American cousin, may well be the next unheated fish dish to take the world by storm.

For those who haven't come across it yet, ceviche is a dish that involves steeping raw fish or seafood in some form of acidic marinade before serving it up as part of a salad. The most typical marinade uses lemon or lime juice, though bitter orange or grapefruit juice and even vinegar are also occasionally used. To this are added flavourings such as chilli, chopped onions, coriander and allspice. The result is a dish that preserves much of the wonderful freshness of the best sushi, preserving many of the vitamins and minerals of raw fish and, given that it's served with salad vegetables rather than rice, even less carbohydrates. Beyond its healthy similarities to sushi, however, ceviche also possesses a more intense and varied mixture of flavours and textures. While it's long been a common feature of restaurants serving food from its Latin American homeland, ceviche is currently breaking out of its ethnic niche to become a fashionable and increasingly common restaurant dish, chiming perfectly with the contemporary taste for small portions, food which showcases extremely fresh ingredients, and for healthy eating. Establishments like New York's Crave Ceviche Bar and Chicago's DeLaCosta are both recently opened hangouts for the young and hip doing much to popularise the dish. And while the US's substantial Latino population means that Ceviche is especially popular stateside, the trend is spreading to Europe where London's extremely popular (and rather loud) Club Bar and Dining opened its own ceviche bar this year.

Given its current modishness, it's surprising to reflect how old ceviche is. It's supposed genesis is as a dish prepared on board ships by Peruvian fisherman who couldn't light fires safely but didn't want to eat their catch entirely raw. A food found over an extremely large area, ceviche is eaten throughout the Latin American countries bordering the Pacific Ocean, as well as in parts of the Caribbean, the Philippines and Polynesia. In Europe, the Catalans also boast a similar dish, a salad called Esqueixada made with uncooked salt cod. With its overwhelming popularity among hispanophone nations, it seems highly likely that ceviche spread along routes set up by conquistadores, who also introduced the citrus fruits and onions that are an essential part of the recipe to South America. Nonetheless, it's quite possible that ceviche predates the Spaniards' arrival in the New World, as the Incas are believed to have made a similar preparation themselves, using chicha, the sour maize drink, or astringent juice from the fruit of the turbo tree. While the basic technique for making the dish remains very similar everywhere, different regions of Latin America have all developed their own flavouring blends for ceviche. In coastal Peru, for example, bream and clams are especially popular and the dish is often served with toasted corn, as well as seaweeds. In Ecuador, prawns are the dominant fish used, with a marinade often based around an acidic tomato sauce or ketchup. Shark ceviche is popular in Costa Rica, while halibut marinated in grapefruit juice is a common choice in Chile. The level of heat is also variable: while Ecuadorean ceviche is relatively mild, the Panamanians and Cubans often spice it with aggressive, tear-inducing peppers like habaneros and scotch bonnets.

For those who avoid sushi due to fears about the potential amount of microbes in raw fish, ceviche's mode of preparation is also an attraction. While it is not heated, the citric acid in a ceviche marinade denatures the fish's protein in a way similar to cooking (though without destroying bacteria quite as effectively, it's true). Meat and fish can be denatured easily when they are exposed to a level of acidity and temperature higher than that normally present in the animal's muscles. As most animal tissue is low in acidity, a simple citrus solution will be enough to denature it if enough of the surface area is exposed to the denaturing agent. Sea creatures are especially easy to denature as their normal body temperature is so low, meaning that even a fridge is warm enough to support the process. Thus, fish steeped in lemon or lime juice and refrigerated for a time will become firm and turn more opaque and less translucent than in its original form, much as cooked fish does. That said, while ceviche has traditionally been left for anything up to 48 hours to marinate, the new wave of international ceviche chefs often leave it for considerably less, with steeping times somewhere between 30 minutes and 30 seconds.

Refreshing and full of flavour, it's easy to see why ceviche is becoming so popular. If you can't find anywhere that makes it near you, the recipes below show you how to knock up a serviceable version at home (though the fusion version might horrify your average Peruvian). As with sushi, quality fish is of paramount importance, so always choose something that you know has been freshly caught and never, ever use anything frozen. All told, it's possible that now might be the best time to try ceviche. After all, if the worldwide spread of sushi is anything to go by, the dish may soon start being just another thing every other restaurant dishes up regardless of quality. So if you haven't tried it and like the sound of it, you should get it while it's still, er, cold.