The Deliciousness of Peruvian Ceviche
A Very Abridged Primer to Peru's National Dish
This post is a small excerpt of the biggest section in my guidebook dedicated to ceviche (available now!).
First, what is ceviche?
Ceviche is Peru’s national dish in which fish or mixed seafood is placed in lime. The limes transforms the fish and seafood, altering the texture and elevating the flavor.
For purists, Peruvian ceviche is comprised of just five ingredients: fish, salt, red onion, lime, and ají (chili pepper). It sounds simple, but throughout Peru, you’ll find countless varieties of ceviche that build on this simple formula.
What makes a ceviche Peruvian?
One of the easiest ways to distinguish Peruvian ceviche from other types of ceviche is that it prominently features red onions. The red onion is typically cut into distinctive ‘plumas’ (long arcs) that capture the bold nature of Peruvian ceviche.
For me what makes the Peruvian ceviche unique and impossible to replicate is the limes in Peru (limón criollo). Peru has amazing seafood, but even in other parts of the world with high-quality seafood, there’s just no substitute for Peruvian limes.
What makes a good ceviche?
Fresh Seafood-It may seem obvious that fresh seafood makes for a good Peruvian ceviche. However, in less scrupulous cevicherías and in cheap Peruvian restaurants outside of Peru, ceviche becomes a way to get rid of ingredients rather than highlighting them.
The need for freshness extends to every ingredient. On a plate of ceviche, there’s simply no room for subpar ingredients to hide.
Limes are a fundamental ingredient in ceviche, but they cannot be taken for granted. The acidity of the limes “cook” the seafood, transforming its texture into what we know and love. Limes also play a unique dual role-giving ceviche its bold, citrus flavor while also working behind the scenes to help unite all of the elements.
The limes in Peru are of a different variety than the kind you find in other parts of the world. They have a unique flavor, somewhat like key limes. The unique taste of the limón criollo is one of the reasons that ceviche outside Peru will never be the same.
Texture-One of the most surprising things that I realized when I first tasted ceviche in Peru was how important texture is. Common elements in ceviche include choclo (Andean corn), chicharrón de pescado (fried fish), and camote (sweet potato) which all provide different layers of texture. The variety of textures in a plate of ceviche is one of the aspects of ceviche that makes digging into a plate of ceviche so pleasurable.
Presentation-Ceviche is a feast for all of the senses. There are many different types of ceviche that can be found throughout Peru. The real test for a chef’s creativity is how they are able to present and combine common elements and motifs in a way that highlights the ingredients.
Harmony-In the end, I think the ultimate test for good ceviche is how well all of the various flavors and textures come together.
How to Enjoy Ceviche
Ceviche is best enjoyed on the coast of Peru. It’s even more delicious when you have a view of the ocean.
Ceviche is everywhere in Lima so it’s almost impossible to miss. It would be worth your time to add an extra day in Lima into your itinerary so that you can enjoy a ceviche lunch.
You can find a cevichería on almost any major street. If you are in a rush or care less about ambiance (which in my opinion is a big part of the experience), you can sit down at a market stall for a plate of fresh ceviche at a bargain price.
Don’t limit yourself to just Lima either. There are many different regional varieties, and ceviche is a dish that lends itself to culinary innovation. In the Andes, the base seafood will be trucha (trout). In the jungle, you have Amazonian fish such as dorado and paiche.
Just keep in mind one thing when eating ceviche:
The first rule of Ceviche-only eat ceviche for lunch and eat ceviche before 3 pm at the latest).
Almost no one eats ceviche for dinner in Peru. Restaurants don’t even bother serving it for dinner unless they are catering to tourists. To Peruvians, ceviche should only use the freshest seafood, seafood that is caught that morning.
Much More About Peruvian Ceviche in My Book
In my guidebook to Peruvian food, I have a big chapter devoted to ceviche.
You just read the first part. I go on to cover over fifteen different types of ceviche. I also include other fifteen dishes that are great accompaniments to ceviche.
Perhaps most importantly, I include a list of my favorite places to try ceviche throughout Peru.
That’s just ceviche. The book includes descriptions of over 100 dishes and information for over 130 restaurants.