Ceviche, also sometimes spelt as cebiche or seviche depending on where Latin America that it originates from, is a popular seafood dish. The origin of ceviche offers us a deeper cultural understanding into many South American countries and in particular, Peru, where it has assumed the position of National Dish.
Ceviche (pronounced say-beach-chay) is easy to find across Latin America and is a must-try dish for those of you visiting the continent. Whether you try it in a swanky restaurant or from a South American street food cart, it is sure to become a favourite!
What is Ceviche?
There are many different regional variations of ceviche but most simply, the dish will consist of raw fish, fresh lime juice, a few chilis. The most popular type of ceviche and the one you will find all over Peru, adds in raw onion and coriander. Although it doesn’t sound super appealing, we promise it is delicious!
The fish is cured by sitting in a marinade of lime juice and salt. The acid from the citrus fruit reacts with the salt, essentially cooking it. This is what makes the fish turn from pink to white. It has long been argued about how long to leave the fish in the juice for, with some chefs opting for a minute and others preferring an hour or two. If you leave the fish for too long, it can become rubbery.
Top Tip: Eat your ceviche with a spoon like a local – you won’t miss out on any of the juice and flavours that way!
Many different kinds of fish can be used in ceviche but the most popular are sea bass, halibut, snapper, trout and tilapia. Shellfish and other seafood such as octopus, squid, shrimp and scallops can be used as well although these feature more frequently in restaurants or stalls located in coastal regions.
Origin of ceviche
The history of ceviche is not black and white and its birthplace has long been disputed. Although Peru is most famous for its cebiche, it is believed by some that the dish may have originated from Ecuador. Both countries have an incredible array of both shellfish and fish, essential for making this dish.
There is a popular theory which claims that ceviche originated around 2000 years ago, during the times of the Moche civilisation. Fermented juices from banana and passionfruit were used to marinate the seafood as citrus was yet to make an appearance in Latin America. The current version of ceviche where the fish is marinated in lime juice, probably came into being after the Spanish colonials brought limes to the continent.
Ceviche could have got its name from several places. There are arguments to suggest that it derives from the Latin ‘cibus’, which means ‘food for men and animals’ and potentially from the Arabic words for soup or vinegar. Another favoured theory is that it originates from the Spanish word ‘escabeche’ which literally means pickle or marinade.
Many Latin American countries serve ceviche, however, all of them put their own individual spin on the dish.
In Costa Rica, as well as Nicaragua, ceviche includes marinated fish, coriander, lime juice, salt, pepper and finely minced onions and peppers. It is often served in a cocktail glass with soda crackers and a lettuce leaf. Tabasco, mayonnaise and ketchup are commonly used as condiments.
In Chile, halibut or Patagonian toothfish are usually used in ceviche. The fish is then marinated in both lime and grapefruit juices. It has a refreshing taste and is often served with both coriander and fresh mint.
Ecuador’s shrimp ceviche is very different compared to neighbouring Peru’s traditional version. Whilst lime juice is still used in Ecuadorian ceviche, a tomato sauce is the base of the dish, offering a tangy taste. Different types of shellfish are used and it is easy to adapt this dish to be veggie-friendly as we learnt on our visit to Runtun Farm in Baños. The ceviche is usually served alongside popcorn or toasted corn and patacones.
Concha Negra (black conch ceviche) is a popular choice in El Salvador. It is nearly black in colour, hence the name, with a very unique flavour. It is prepared with onion, salt, pepper, lime juice, the yerba buena herb, tomato, Worcestershire sauce and sometimes picante. That’s hot sauce to all of you who need to brush up on their Español!
Ceviche in Mexico is commonly served in cocktail cups and they used a mixture of octopus, squid, mackerel, tuna and shrimp in the dish. Avocado, chilis, onion, coriander, salt and lime are used in the marinade. It is either served with tostadas or as a taco filling. Sometimes, tomatoes and olives are added to the marinade but this depends on individual preference.
In Panama, they use lemon juice for the ceviche marinade instead of lime. Celery, peppers, onion, salt and coriander are also added. Ceviche de Corvina, made from white sea bass is a popular option and is often served as an appetiser in restaurants.
As we’ve already mentioned, it is Peruvian ceviche that is the most well known. Their traditional dish comprises raw fish which has been marinated in lime juice with sliced red onion, chilis, salt and pepper. It is usually served alongside corn on the cob or toasted corn as well as slices of cooked sweet potato. In Trujillo, they specialise in tollo or tojo ceviche (shark) and in Lima, they often use sole.
Although not always paired together, ceviche goes down particularly well alongside a Peruvian beer such as Pilsen Callao or better still, Inka Cola, one of the must-try drinks in South America!
Ceviche and Peru’s Cultural Heritage
Peru’s fascination with ceviche is very interesting and it is remarkable to see just how deeply this dish has become woven in the culture and daily life of the people.
National Ceviche Day
Cebiche is officially the national dish of the country and it has even inspired a national holiday, known as Ceviche Day. The festival occurs on the 28th June every year and around this date, restaurants offer exclusive menus and special creative versions of the dish. Competitions and food fairs take place all over the country, to honour everybody’s favourite seafood dish.
Peru’s Increasing Culinary Influence
Peru’s capital Lima has shot onto the gastronomy scene in recent years and there are numerous restaurants with world-class chefs preparing ceviche as their speciality. In 2019, Lima had two restaurants in the 50 best in the world list.
It isn’t just Lima where ceviche is popular either. All of Peru’s coastal regions pride themselves on their ceviche and the dish is also popular in other tourist hotspots like Cusco. Plenty of cooking schools all over the country offer classes which teach travellers how to make ceviche. We did an amazing cooking class with Cusco Culinary, where we made three different versions of the dish: traditional, passionfruit fusion and Japanese inspired. If you want to try your skills at making ceviche, you can book your cooking class with Cusco Culinary here.
As Peruvian cuisine has cemented its reputation on a global scale, the food is now exported all over the world and has even found its way onto the British and US high streets. You probably have a Peruvian restaurant closer than you think! To give you some more inspiration for your next Peruvian inspired meal, check out our top 10 Peruvian dishes!
For those of you that are still living the dream in South America, check out our list of the ultimate places to eat ceviche in Peru. If possible, try to eat your ceviche dish late morning, as the fish is always fresher earlier in the day.
Top 5 Places to Eat Ceviche in Peru!
Chez Wong – Lima – $$$$
Without a doubt, the best place to eat ceviche in Lima is at Chez Wong. Chef Javier Wong is the king of ceviche and the only chef in his popular restaurant, located in the Santa Catalina neighbourhood. You will need to book in advance. This is the restaurant that Anthony Bourdain visited on his trip to Lima. If it’s good enough for him, we’re sure you won’t have any complaints!
Los Delfines – Máncora – $$-$$$
Located in surfer town Máncora right on the seafront, Los Delfines offers incredible views of the beach and the best ceviche around. The ceviche mixto which is a combination of fish and shellfish comes highly rated as the catch is fresh and the portions are huge. Treat yourself to a bit of sun, sand and seafood!
Restaurant Sonia – Lima – $$-$$$
Owned by a fisherman and his wife, all of the food prepared at Restaurant Sonia is caught by the owner and his family and served fresh. It is not uncommon to eat fish which has only been out of the sea for a couple of hours at this family-run restaurant! It’s located in Chorrillos neighbourhood which has a reputation for being a little sketchy – visit during the day if you are concerned.
Primer Puerto Cevicheria – Arequipa $-$$
Although this quiet spot isn’t the easiest to find, it is well worth persevering with! As the name suggests, this little restaurant in Arequipa specialises in ceviche and offers plenty of different options. If you are looking to try several variations of the dish, they serve triple plates which allow you to sample everything. The locals love it here, a true sign of a hidden gem!
Limo – Cusco – $$$$
This restaurant in Cusco is the place to go if you enjoy a creative spin on a traditional dish. Famous for its Peruvian/Japanese fusion dishes, the ceviche here is comparable to sashimi and tastes amazing. As if the food weren’t reason enough to visit, the restaurant also overlooks the Plaza de Armas so you can watch the hustle below with a nice cold Pisco Sour in hand!