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.
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 maybe...it 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