Ceviche vs aguachile
Ceviche vs aguachile ... differences aside, there's a time and place to enjoy both
Ceviche outside of Peru just doesn’t do it for us, but luckily we found another way to get our lime and seafood fix when traveling in Mexico.
Aguachile, as commonly served nowadays in restaurants throughout Mexico, consists of seafood (most commonly shrimp) sliced thinly, placed in lime, and served. It usually comes with cucumber, onions, and sometimes avocado.
It turns out that almost every part of the above definition is up for debate to the extent that it’s impossible to define aguachile in a way that makes everyone happy. I’ll loop back later in the post and touch on some of these controversies. I usually try not to get too hung up on these debates so that I can focus on the food and the experiences around it. However, sometimes trying to discern what each side is trying to say leads to interesting ideas as we’ll see.
Speaking of definitions, “aguachile” literally translates to “chile water", but modern aguachile replaces water with lime. I’m grateful for this since I personally believe that adding water is a huge ceviche crime.
Aguachile originated in Sinaloa, Mexico whereas ceviche originated in South America. It could be the case that seafood in lime in Mexico and Peru, whether you call it ceviche or aguachile, is an example of convergent evolution in which both dishes evolved separately but ended up similar since they both fill a common need/niche.
Even with modern technology, you need to be very selective about the seafood you use in ceviche and aguachile. Before refrigeration, there was a need to use limes and other acidic ingredients to help kill the bacteria in fish and seafood in a way that doesn’t mask the freshness. Because there was a common need to kill bacteria in seafood pre-refrigeration, the two dishes ended up being similar. (Fish and seafood that needed to be preserved longer were probably salted and dried).
However, the uncertain history of aguachile makes it hard to know for sure. Next, I’ll focus more on the practical differences-what to know if you traveling throughout Latin America.
Ceviche vs Aguachile
There are several key differences between ceviche and aguachile that you may come across when traveling in Peru and Mexico, respectively. Again, we’re talking about what restaurants throughout Mexico currently call “aguachile.” The term has evolved a lot—it used to refer to a dish that uses neither lime nor seafood which happens to be two of the main ingredients used in aguachile nowadays.
In aguachile, the seafood is placed in the lime and then served right away. In Mexican ceviche, the seafood spends longer in the lime and therefore has a different texture. In Peru, the lime juice is strong so the ceviche is placed in lime and then served right away (it wasn’t always like that though). Kenji López-Alt has a great article about how lime transforms fish over time. I’m surprised I hadn’t seen this particular article earlier.
Aguachile has sliced cucumber which balances the acidity of the lime. Visually, the signature ingredient of Peruvian ceviche is the thin slices (“plumas”) of red onions.
Peruvian ceviche typically features the limo pepper while aguachile traditionally uses chiltepín but nowadays it usually uses the serrano pepper.
While some restaurants let you choose how spicy you want your aguachile or ceviche, aguachile tends to start spicier than ceviche by default.
Classic aguachile usually features shrimp whereas classic ceviche revolves around the fish of the day.
For both aguachile and ceviche, the quality and freshness of the fish or seafood is of utmost importance. Both are best enjoyed in places along the coast (even more delicious when you have a view of the ocean).
Our Personal Experience with Aguachile
We started eating more aguachile (three times a week at the peak) in Tulum, Mexico. We were a bit frustrated with the food options nearby and then we discovered a pescadería (fish shop) along a dusty road during a walk. The pescadería wasn’t on Google Maps at the time, and the building was nondescript. We decided to take a chance and are glad we did. They served exactly one dish-fried whole fish with tortillas which we would order for lunch and then buy more fresh fish to take home.
After our first trip to the pescadería, Mariela started making ceviche, but the limes in Mexico are very different from the limes in Peru so we decided to make aguachile instead. Perhaps, it’s just a psychological hangup I would rather eat a completely different dish than something kind of similar to the thing I like but lacking the essential qualities. With aguachile, we found a dish that satisfies our love for combining seafood and citrus while at the same time having its own distinct characteristics.
As I mentioned before, in aguachile the seafood spends less time marinating in the lime juice. As a result, a lot of times, the shrimp in aguachile is served a little black which is a bit too raw for my personal tastes. Thus, I enjoy it more at home where we can make it to our taste.
Aguachile has become a staple during our travels through Mexico. One of the best travel decisions we’ve made this year is to just take a day off from exploring and just stay at our Airbnb and enjoy aguachile and mezcalitas by the pool.
Many restaurants in Mexico serve ceviche, but for us, the ceviche in Mexico, even at places where the ceviche comes highly recommended, tends to be forgettable at best. However, we’ve had several memorable aguachiles. Sometimes these excellent aguachiles were served in the same restaurant alongside the mediocre ceviches.
For us, the fundamental difference between Peruvian ceviche and ceviche anywhere else is in the lime. The limes used in ceviche in Peru have a special taste. It’s a taste I now associate with home. That’s why for us, ceviche outside of Peru will never be the same.
The green version of aguachile, commonly served nowadays, bolsters the local limes with cilantro and serrano peppers (more pepper than used in ceviche) which makes the dish work for us.
Is Everything the Same or Different?
My general approach to food is to experience things myself and then try to do more research to gain more context. Given the chance (if we’re in the same place for a while), I keep repeating these two steps. It took me multiple repeats of the same searches to get past the cruft, but delving deeper into aguachile revealed some interesting reads that I wanted to share with you.
As a headline, “If You Think Aguachile and Ceviche Are the Same, You’re Doing It Wrong” certainly grabs your attention. In this interview, Chef Claudia Sandoval of Top Chef fame says “aguachile is nothing like ceviche.” Those already seem like fighting words. However, here’s where it gets real:
“These new aguachiles that everyone is making now, that you see across all of these restaurants, made with all these things, it cracks me up because at the end of the day, they’re still curing seafood in lime and calling it aguachile. It’s like, no, actually, that’s ceviche!” -Chef Claudia Sandoval, Eater Magazine
I see her point. That’s why I prefaced my definition of aguachile with the acknowledgment that this post is about aguachile as it’s commonly served. I think it’s interesting that Chef Sandoval later claims that aguachile is more similar to Japanese sashimi than Peruvian ceviche. However, shrimp sashimi as I’ve had it in Japan and the US is usually cooked (lightly poached) which begs the question of whether I’ve really had sashimi.
Perhaps more interestingly, there’s a type of ceviche in Peru called tiradito that also was inspired by Japanese sashimi. This means that the Japanese inspired the development of two different dishes involving seafood and lime in two entirely different parts of Latin America!
Much, Much More About Ceviche
Thank you for accompanying me on my explorations of the difference between aguachile and Peru.
If you want to read more about the many varieties of Peruvian ceviche, please buy a copy of my guidebook. I have many descriptions and photos of different types of ceviche as well as recommendations for the best places to try ceviche in Peru.
Also, for a limited time, if you subscribe for a year, I’ll send you the guidebook! More about subscriptions soon!
If you’re interested in reading more about aguachile, check out these links
This article explores a broad definition of aguachile. It includes beautiful photos, unique recipes, and even a suggested playlist.
This is a beautifully written article that summarizes the origins of Aguachile. I wish more Eater posts were this good and well-researched!
This is a decent summary of the history of Peruvian ceviche. It takes a big shortcut from the origin to the present, but you’ll get the gist after reading it.
This is the interview with Chef Claudia Sandoval that I referenced above. It’s an interesting, quick read.
When I’m in Peru, I always enjoy trying new dishes. However, there are a ton of classic dishes that we keep on coming back to that I’d like to share with you. Many of the articles I’ve been publishing thus far have been at the frontier of Peruvian cuisine.
I think that now’s a good time to return to the basics, for at least a few posts. Starting next week, I will cover more classic Peruvian dishes while also introducing some basic ideas about Peruvian food. I will continue to share stories about my personal connection to each dish along with some personal opinions. So, expect more posts like this one about lomo saltado.
If you’re curious about something about Peruvian food, please ask in the comments!