Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Cerviche Wars

Photo by Manuel González Olaechea y Franco
The warm wind rustled the paper table cloth, and soft sand oozed between my wiggling toes as I waited for the dish that would cause my taste buds to have a fiesta. Gazing at the azure waters of the Pacific Ocean, I couldn’t think of a better place to be -- Mancora, on the far north coast of Peru, is a haven for foodies, especially those with a penchant for devouring plates of cerviche.

Popular in most coastal regions of Central and South America, this seafood dish has been the centre of a dispute for many years. Made from fresh raw fish and marinated in lemon or lime juice, it is spiced with peppers, onion, salt and usually accompanied by sweet potato, lettuce, corn, or avocado (depending on which region you’re in). The juices cook the fish, but beware – only eat cerviche early in the day or else you’re likely to end up with a nasty bout of food poisoning. Unfortunately, I found out first hand why you don’t eat cerviche late afternoon, but it still didn’t put me off one of my favourite dishes.

Many nationalities have laid claim as to who invented cerviche. Central and South Americans and even some Polynesian islands in the South Pacific have all put their hands up as the creators.

Every former Spanish colony has its own version of cerviche. The Spaniards stocked citrus fruit on their ships to prevent scurvy on long voyages, and some historians believe the recipe was brought to Peru by Moorish women from Granada, who accompanied the Spaniards, and the recipe morphed into the cerviche as we know it today.

Those in the Polynesian camp say the Spanish encountered this dish on their voyages through the islands. The Spanish sailors enjoyed it so much, the recipe spread through the its colonies, and each region put their own spin on it.

But perhaps the strongest argument is for Peru and Ecuador. Archaeologists have discovered evidence that documents cerviche was eaten by the Moche civilization in northern Peru almost 2,000 years ago. Some say banana passion fruit was originally used to marinate the fish, and when the Spanish arrived the indigenous people preferred to marinate their fish in limes and lemons.

Depending on who you talk to, you’ll get a different story and reasons why a certain country did, or didn’t, invent cerviche. Many a time, I’ve inadvertently become embroiled in a heated discussion between a Peruvian and Chilean or Ecuadorian as to who created the original cerviche. At times, I felt like I was back in Australia, debating with a New Zealander as to who invented the pavlova, but that is a whole other post and sure-fire way of getting our New Zealand readers offside. (I jest!)

I’ve eaten cerviche in many parts of the world (including an Australian version), but today, I’ll post the Peruvian recipe.

1 ½ pounds of mahimahi, ono, or bluenose bass, diced
½ red onion, slivered
¾ cup lime juice (make sure it is a highly acidic type)
1 habanero chili, seeded, halved, and thinly sliced (optional)
1 tbsp of ají amarillo sauce (available pureed or in jars in most Latin markets)
½ cup cilantro leaves, chopped
1 orange sweet potato, peeled, boiled, cooled, and sliced
1 cob sweet corn, boiled, and sliced into 1-inch pieces
4 butter lettuce leaves

Rinse diced fish and slivered red onion in cold water and dry thoroughly.

In a large glass bowl, combine fish, red onion, lime juice, salt, habanero chili, and ají amarillo (if using). Cover and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Just before serving, stir in the cilantro. Place lettuce leaves on the plate, sweet potato, and corn to the side and spoon the cerviche on top of the lettuce leaves.

Eat and enjoy!

To be honest, I don’t care who invented cerviche. All I know is whenever I hear the word, smell lemons and limes, or eat the dish, I’m instantly transported back to a thatch-roofed hut on a deserted beach in Peru. My stomach rumbles, I can sniff the salty breeze and my mouth waters at the thought of diving into a dish that can cause heated debates between so many nationalities.

What food takes you back to a special time or place?


  1. I've never had cerviche, but you make it seem irresistible, Alli! I saw it on the menu in a Mexican restaurant once, but wasn't brave enough to try it. Since the meal was late in the day, it was probably a good thing!

    The food that I most associate with a specific place and time is flan. Whenever I eat it, I'm back in a restaurant in Tulancingo, Mexico, where I lived for a while, teaching English. Between classes I'd always sit in this place and have their marvelous flan while working on the next day's lesson plans (mainly practicing my Spanish with the waiter).

  2. Yummmmm, flan.... my mouth is watering! What a great experience, Heidi. Have you ever been able to recreate the recipe at home? Another great memory of mine is a wonderful bakery in Kathmandu. They made the most amazing chocolate banana cream pie. It really was worth travelling all that way to eat. :-)

  3. Alli, while you and the other Novel Adventurers were hard at work on your food posts last week (just before the Thanksgiving holiday), I was hard at work sampling different kinds of ceviche in downtown D.C. The first time I tried ceviche was in Austin in the '80s and I'd fallen in love with it. After that, I rarely found it on menus while dining out. But last weekend, we enjoyed a ceviche tasting menu in downtown D.C. I still most love the simplest one with red onions, cilantro, green chilies, and lots of lime. But I'd thought the one I tried with tabasco, chunks of tomatos and potatos, and slices of palm may have been more authentic...until I read your post today. So fun to read about its history and cultural influences.

  4. Supriya, your cerviche weekend sounds divine. I could eat it daily, quite happily. Thanks for putting in the hard yards and doing all that research!