Sunday, September 1, 2013


Controversies over the birthplace of certain dishes are part of the spice of life and landscape of any cuisine. A spirited discussion revolves around the origin of ceviches. This seafood favorite, made of raw fish and/or barely blanched shellfish marinated in citrus juices and laced with various adornments many maintain, was bestowed upon the world at large via ancient Peru.
Or not…

Perhaps the most romantic story holds that ceviche was invented so that an Incan emperor, high up in his Andean citadel in Cusco, could enjoy fresh fish despite his remote location from the sea. The fish, caught on the Peruvian coast, was first marinated in the tart juices of the native tumbo citrus fruit to preserve and flavor it, then carried by runners…
known as chasquis up to the hungry emperor.

Another story attributes the invention of ceviche to Peruvian fishermen, who would bring with them… tumbo juice infused with chile peppers. They would pickle some of their catch to feed themselves during their long stretches at sea. 

Or was Polynesian voyagers, traveling across the ocean to pre-Columbian Peru on wind-driven reed rafts, who introduced the notion of eating marinated raw fish; the custom was common in their Pacific island homes.

Peruvian food scholar Juan José Vega, who has studied the influence on Peruvian cuisine of the Moorish slave cooks who arrived with the Spanish nobility in the sixteenth century, offers yet another theory. In his version, the slaves introduced to Peru a dish called sei-vech, made of fish marinated in the juice of ceuta lemons, which they brought with them from the city of the same name out of North Africa… North East of Morocco and planted in the New World.

Working with Peruvians and visiting their markets and restaurants has given me a different understanding of the delicacy of a properly made ceviche: I used to think it should be made the night before it was eaten… or even longer... Instead, I now think of it more like sushi. Sushi and sashimi are, after all, eaten raw Many ceviches are best nearly so… learning is never ending...

I first tasted ‘Conch Salad’ (a ceviche to be sure) in Key West, when I was engaged in the often insane business of opening a brand-new restaurant. One afternoon back then, a large shadow obscured the tropical light that spilled through the kitchen screen door. (It was like when you are skin diving in the ocean and a big fish swims behind you.) Then came a man’s voice. It was a booming bass, but singsong as well, with Bahamian inflections: “Hey. Hey. I’m Frank, the Conch Salad Man. I’ll sell you the world’s best conch salad.” 

He pushed open the screen door and came into the kitchen, holding a big white pickle bucket brimming with conch salad. With a paper cup, he scooped up some for me to try. I tipped back a mixture of finely diced conch, tomatoes, red onions, Scotch bonnets, bell peppers, celery, citrus juices, and herbs. The flavors of the sea were in there too. 

His saltwater-stained heavy black glasses were held on with fishing line. His hands were thick and meaty, scarred and callused from heavy labor. He wore canvas shoes, military-style pants, and a white T-shirt. A long gold chain around his neck drew attention to a nasty scar that ringed his collarbone. When he scooped out more salad for each of the cooks and waiters working in my kitchen that day I became a fan. 
Ceviche… it’s cool.

I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s my Word on Food ©.
© 2013 Norman Van Aken

Thursday, July 4, 2013


You may be making plans to celebrate our day of "National Independence" from the once “Tax Mad” English by having friends and family over for backyard parties. Possibly your menu will be featuring one of the all-time icons of American gastronomy, "The Great American Hot Dog".

When most of us think of hot dogs I think we purposefully agree to block out what's actually packed into the dog's casing. I have heard there are lips possibly in them... but what else? What stray parts or otherwise unsellable organ meats might be ground within the neat little capsule of fatty goodness? Never mind! We intentionally and forcefully disconnect the logic valve to our brain stem's regulator regarding health (ugh) and allow the id to run the show when we commence to eat Hot Dogs.

True confession. I eat 'em. Rarely. But I do. I crave them more often than I eat them. But there are times and places for that snappy, chewy, gut-lust satisfying experience. I’d have one… and maybe two if is a National Holiday with a “Sweaty Betty Blonde.” That is a beer before I get in trouble! An unfiltered Bavarian-style Hefeweizen just to show I’m not making this up! 
Good beer if you can find it. 

I never eat in the fast food restaurants that clutter the globe now. And it is not because I'm ‘too good’. It just doesn't satisfy the necessary and even rational (!) pre-qualifications I mentioned a moment ago. It doesn't make my id rev. Something warns me… if too many folks go to something… that something is probably very very wrong. It’s the same as my ‘Supermarket Best Seller List of Literature’ theory. I think I’ll have another Sweaty Betty Blonde and move on. 

When one fires up to cook Hot Dogs at home I feel compelled to offer one basic rule or maybe two. They must be cooked on a grill and given a nice char! Wienies bobbing in liquid are ridiculous. The fat inside that sausage needs to ooze out to the surface of the dog and sweetly caramelize in the heat of the moments. And since caramelization and said sweetness are present... Rule 2. No freaking KETCHUP! Hot Dogs are to be anointed with mustard. They need that TANG. 

And sometimes they need even more.

There is a hot dog vendor down in a section of Miami where English is expendable who may have created the ultimate and most definitely not “AKC registered” dog.

First he puts a freshly cooked (grilled!) hot dog on a lightly toasted bun. (onion bun for me). Then he adds some ketchup (I forgive him for this one violation if I’m too slow to stop his flying hands) and then the tangy goodness of mustard. 

Hold on! He's just started to walk this dog. Then he adds a big dab of mayo, then fried sweet onions and pickle relish. 

Then he adds cold diced, fresh, sweet pineapple and then he puts the dog on a plate and takes some spicy-salty potato chips between his two cupped hands and rubs them back and forth over the dog, showering the now besotted canine with crunchy-fatty shards of bliss.

If it were a fireworks display I think we'd all be saying, "Awwwww" right about now. 


I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s…. My Word on Food ©.
Copyright © by Norman Van Aken, 2013

Note: I have a weekly radio program on WLRN-PBS and WLRN.ORG 91.3 and 91.5 FM. This is my script copy of a recent show. But they are also meant to be LISTENED to so jump on to WLRN.ORG and search for me or for "A Word On Food". 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


See my Twitter page for a picture of the American Flag snapping in the Illinois December wind.

Stark, blackish telephone and utility poles punctuate the somber white fields. Snowplow cleared highways frame those fields in another geometric manner. Heavy trucks create a sonic corollary of this quiet morning pageant.

Yesterday we fulfilled nostalgic childhood flavors stopping for a much fantasized about Italian Beef Sandwhich from Portillos, a place much grander than our typical place for such cravings but good all the same even so.

After more icy driving, a favorite pub stop and visiting we rejoined family for a "never fail to visit when in Lake County"; Bill's Pub in my hometown of Diamond Lake. 12 of us gathered around the famous, flat, thin-crust crispy pies.
My wife, Janet is from this same place and she is the ultimate arbiter of how Bill's measures over the years. She was only willing to give one thumb up last night... but we will try again in three nights or less I'll bet!

Now it is time for a look at some of what Chicago has to offer us that may be new to us!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


My Mom's city was NYC but for Daddy it was CHI TOWN! We are heading there from the relatively steamy provinces of South Florida this morning. Soon I'll report on the City of Big Shoulders and what my "Cousins" have to offer.

Yesterday on Flagler it was Nicaraguan "Carne Desmenuzada with Pinto Gallo and Maduros". (See
my Twitter post for picture).

On the Road!

Sunday, December 19, 2010


I'll have to put a picture of the Egg, Chorizo and Potato Tacos I had at "Antojitos" of Homestead, Fla on my Twitter page, @normanvanaken
I can't upload it here as of yet.

This family run place has been a favorite of ours since chancing across their Food Truck version first 3 years ago. The "Mama" is an absolute bruja of all manner of soups. Her Chicken Soup is soulful. Her Beef Soup will make a Man out of you and her Menudo will heal the sick/raise the hungover! Dios Mio!

The family is a wedding of Mexico and Salvador and their menu embraces both country's flavors with equal gusto. Those eggs? (See Twitter) were great and she makes her Tortillas "to order" my friends!

As I was leaving my Brother in Law called me. He said, "Are you at Antojitos?"

I had left before he'd risen but everyone who knows me knows when I'm in Homestead I'm going there.

"Yes I am Largo". (His nickname).

"Great! Could you bring back a 'large' of her Seafood Soup?"