What's the Deal with Lime Prices in Peru?
Putting on my Planet Money Hat
We landed in Lima in the middle of July and were confronted with an unpleasant surprise. Food prices in general were surprisingly high. After a few days, we noticed that lime prices, specifically, were at record highs. Now, it seems that the whole country of Peru is talking about the high lime prices.
This wasn’t a complete surprise. Food prices have been generally steadily rising in Peru for a while, and each week, Mariela’s relatives had been telling her that the price for a different ingredient each week was astonishingly high.
However, it took a few days for the high lime prices in Peru to register since food prices seemed to high across the board globally. On the news, I would hear about food prices in the US while confronting astonishingly high prices of ingredients in Italy. In Spain, prices for food in restaurants seemed oddly cheaper than the same food at markets in local neighborhoods which made any trend or pattern murkier. In short, we’d been traveling for a few months and didn’t have a frame of reference while traveling on what food prices “should” be in Europe.
In Peru, we didn’t immediately see the big picture, but we noticed the changes in the taste of the food almost right away. I didn’t want to say anything, but the ceviche tasted different. I thought it was jet lag, the millions of other things that we going on in our life, or just a simple streak of bad luck picking places to try.
After the jet lag subsided and a couple of weeks into our stay, I started getting really curious about what was going on with the lime prices.
Food prices across the board were high, but restaurants still seemed to be packed with locals. I was wondering if my memory was playing tricks on me. Then, finally, the memes started rolling in. One example:
The caption which has been circulating around translates to “When we are millionaires, we won’t say anything, but there will be signs.”
Limes which were an everyday ingredient suddenly became a symbol of wealth.
There’s a normal ebb and flow of lime prices. Seasons, of course, play a large role. When limes get more expensive, you can sometimes taste it, especially in the less scrupulous restaurants. The restaurants try to squeeze every drop they can from the limes and end up over-squeezing them, causing the ceviche to be bitter.
However, the current situation is on another level. In Chiclayo, limes are now 60 soles (a little more than 16 dollars) per kilogram whereas they are normally 3 soles per kilogram. One lime is now 5 soles per lime which is $1.35 for one lime. In other regions, the prices are not as drastic (around 19 soles/kilogram) but still are significant. The minister of economics, Alex Contreras, infamously advised people to consider substituting ceviche with a chicken stir-fry—“Si esta semana yo esperaba preparar un ceviche, sustituyo por un pollo saltado.”
The Importance of Limes in Peruvian Cuisine
Before I go too much further, I wanted to give some context on why limes are so important to Peruvians. Limes certainly don’t make up the bulk of the calories in the Peruvian diet. They are significant to the people as the key ingredient in the national dish, ceviche, as well as a host of other dishes.
Limon Sutíl is the lime that is typically used in Peru and is the type of lime that is currently affected by weather disturbances and price hikes. These are a different variety than ones you find in the supermarket in the US and have a unique flavor, somewhat like key limes. The limes are one of the reasons that ceviche outside Peru will never be the same.
The name, Limon Sutíl, translates to subtle limes. They are relatively small and less acidic than other varieties of limes. However, I personally don’t think the taste is subtle at all. I love how the taste of the Limon Sutíl in ceviche wakes up your senses and opens up your appetite.
Limes are a fundamental ingredient in ceviche and cannot be taken for granted. They are well-known for their essential role in “cooking” the seafood, transforming its texture into what we know and love. Lime also plays a unique dual role-giving ceviche its bold, citrus flavor while also working behind the scenes, helping unite all of the other elements.
Because of their importance in ceviche (and pisco sours), limes are a national dish and are prominently displayed at many cevicherías.
Much Bigger Than the Butterfly Effect
The short answer to the question about why lime prices are so high is El Niño which gets the blame for so much these days.
Since the beginning of this year, El Niño, has increased the rainfall in Northern Peru including Piura which has caused the lime plant to not flower which in turn has caused lower production of lime. Recovery to normal yields will take at least 3-4 months, and the shortage can last until the end of 2024.
The price of lime went up 70% in August alone. Other crops that have been affected include mango, corn, banana, lemon, legumes, and blueberries, many of which form a large portion of Peru’s exports and represent a majority of the income for farmers.
A Constantly Changing Landscape
Restaurants have several approaches to dealing with lime prices. They can absorb the cost and make less per dish. This is not always practical since restaurant margins tend to be low to begin with. Many restaurants focus on ceviche so many restaurants can’t just cut profits on their main dish.
Restaurants also can raise prices. I personally haven’t noticed restaurants doing this since we prefer physical menus and most menus we’ve been given are well-worn and don’t have prices taped over. Also, Peruvians tend to be price-sensitive and many would likely protest.
Restaurants can also make portions smaller or ration how much lime is being used. From our personal experience, it seems like restaurants are doing the latter. Changing portion sizes in Peru is risky. Peruvians generally expect generous portions when they eat out. Many restaurants seem to be using less lime or diluting lime with oil, citric acid, or water. We have had ceviches in Ecuador and Chile where they mix lime juice with water or oil, and the results are almost never good.
From our limited and not statistically relevant experience, it seems like more expensive restaurants are the ones that seem to be diluting the limes in their ceviche. The ceviche at the market stalls still seem taste the same.
I’m certainly not saying that all expensive cevicherías are letting the quality go. First, I’m talking about places where the ceviche is 45-75 soles for ceviche (compared to ceviche in the market which runs about 20 soles), not places with tasting menus. Also, I’m not sure if restaurants are to blame. They are in a tight spot and have been dealing with one difficult situation after another. It’s just now hard to know nowadays what you’ll get when you order ceviche.
Web sites and local TV are now advising Peruvians how to tell whether a ceviche was made with lime or citric acid. These stories are interspersed alongside stories of violent crime in which Peruvian news holds nothing back in terms of graphic footage. I’m not sure how sensationalized the citric acid stories are.
Personally, I would like a slightly smaller ceviche than one with water-down limes. I just really hope restaurants here don’t end up tacking on all of these crazy fees that were pioneered in California and now have shown up in some areas in Mexico.
More creative solutions exist as well. The acidic component of ceviche can be substituted. Bitter oranges used to be used to make ceviche. In some regions of Peru, it’s still made this way. Lemons could also be used, but for me, this wouldn’t work. The two citrus fruits taste completely different. Also, from experience, lemons are quite expensive in Peru. Limes also have been imported from other countries including Colombia, but it takes time for other varietals of limes to be accepted if they will be accepted at all.
Restaurants that currently focus on ceviche can also alter their menu and direct clients to other delicacies. During the pandemic, many restaurants in Peru were especially creative in how they kept their doors open. Central even served sandwiches. Menu alterations on this scale however require time.
Limes are not the only ingredient in ceviche that is more expensive now. Red onion prices have now shot up. One of the ceviches we had when we returned to Lima substituted the classic red onions for white onions, likely as a cost-saving measure.
The Peruvian people are resilient, and I’m confident that they’ll figure out a path forward. However, this is just yet another example of how the Peruvian economy, food, and tourism are intertwined in a complex way both to each other and to global events that no one has direct control over. Unfortunately, the drastic changes in ceviche, Peru’s national dish, are likely to be on the more minor side of changes that we’ll have to undergo as the climate around the world becomes more unpredictable.
If you’re on your first trip to Peru, I would still recommend trying ceviche at least once. There’s still a lot of good ceviche to be had. We went to El Mercado, our favorite cevichería, last week, and the ceviche there was as good as ever.
If you’re someone who enjoys ceviche frequently like myself, I would say that you should adjust your expectations temporarily and stick with cevicherías you know and trust. Also, you can make ceviche at home which will still cost more than it did previously, but you have control over the process. Finally, there’s a whole universe of other dishes to try.
I’m not sure what can be done to help the people directly affected, especially the farmers whose livelihood is at stake. I hope this leads to a larger discussion about food security issues in Peru.
Special thanks to Mariela Orjeda, Paola Cuba Castillo, and Tom Díaz for contributing sources for this article. Any misinterpretations are my doing and will be fixed promptly.