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A plate filled with crisp tortilla chips and freshly made ceviche.
Travel & Culture

Distinctive Process: Ceviche Love

Nearly 10 years ago, I fell in love while on vacation in South America. This new romance brought vibrancy and zest into my life. And once I returned home to my small town in the northeastern United States, I tried to recapture the magic. I’m still trying. The truth is that there’s nothing quite like that first taste, but I’ve come close with different twists and variations I experiment with to delight my family and friends.

See, this isn’t about falling in love with a person, but a dish that’s deeply embedded into the cultures of most South American countries: ceviche. Sebiche or cebiche are also popular spellings in different countries. Each region has its own unique spin on the fresh, tangy flavors that make it such as standout dish. And for most, preparing ceviche is almost a religion or love letter. Each ingredient does a delicate dance to create a taste that’s complex with notes of spice, acid, and the sea.

Considering how hard I’ve fallen for this dish, I can only imagine the devotion that the people who grew up with it as part of their family traditions might feel. It’s wonderful as an appetizer, main, or late-night nosh.

Fresh Ceviche: Fast And Easy Fare

Ceviche is deceptively simple. In its most basic form, you only need fresh fish and an acidic element like fresh citrus juice. Some people talk about the process as if it “cooks” the fish. In a way, it’s similar. But of heat, this unique process relies on acid to change the protein structure of the fish. It turns the flesh opaque and makes it firm, but it doesn’t kill parasites or bacteria. That’s why I’m so careful about how I choose the fish I use. 

I like any fish, particularly white-fleshed fish like grouper, striped bass, and flounder. I’ve used shrimp and scallops, too. The one non-negotiable element? It needs to start with the absolute freshest fish. 

I have a local fishmonger I trust. He knows as soon as he sees my vehicle parking in front of his shop what I’m there for and he’s always ready with recommendations for my latest endeavors.  Despite the trust, I always give the fish a sniff — anything that smells fishy is a no-go. The flesh should be clean, firm, and smell faintly like the sea. Ideally, I buy and use the fish on the same day. If I have to buy it the day before, I store it on ice in the refrigerator.

Ceviche is deceptively simple. In its most basic form, you only need fresh fish and an acidic element like fresh citrus juice.

It’s rare that I don’t go immediately home and get started. Just thinking of the redolent scent of citrus and chiles filling the kitchen gets my mouth watering. From there, it’s a question of what ceviche style I’m going to use as my inspiration.

Nearly every country in South America has its own unique spin on this iconic dish. And that’s one of the most marvelous things I’ve discovered about ceviche. One day I can keep it simple and clean with a Chilean spin, combining grapefruit and lime juice with garlic, mint and toasted cumin. For ceviche that’s a little sharp and a little sweet, I might try Ecuadorian-style, which mixes sweet bell peppers with mustard, citrus juice, a splash of vinegar and a touch of ketchup.

I especially love dressing ceviche in different ways. Sometimes I use lime juice and aji chili peppers for a Peruvian take on the dish. Other times, I add a Mexican flare and throw tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, cilantro, and pitted manzanillo olives.

My love affair isn’t ending anytime soon. When I’m feeling a touch of the winter blues, one bite is all I need to take me right back to the warmth and sunshine of my South American adventures. When I’m entertaining and need a showstopper that’s quick and easy, it’s my wow-worthy go-to. For more than a decade I’ve been experimenting with the ingredients and have yet to get tired of the process or the dish.

Therein lies the beauty. It’s simple to prepare and provides endless ways to customize the flavor. What’s not to love?