In a classic ceviche, the mixture of lime juice, salt and flavourings in which the fish is marinated is known as leche de tigre, "milk of the tiger". Drink it when you've eaten the fish and the sweet potato.
Peruvian chef Diego Muñoz proudly introduces his country's national dish of lime-marinated fish.
Ceviche, cebiche, seviche, sebiche, se-vish-ay: no matter how it's spelt or pronounced, we all know what I'm talking about. The dish based on raw fish marinated in lime juice is a symbol, a flagship, of my country, Peru. Peru is full of cevicherias, places that specialise in ceviche. In the markets, next to the beach, in small restaurants and large restaurants, in little tents on the street, in restaurants hidden behind closed doors, even in garages used as restaurants, ceviche is part of everyday life. There's a cevicheria at every price - something for everybody.
The origins of ceviche are controversial, but it's generally agreed that it was first created by fishermen, which explains why it's popular in coastal areas throughout Central and South America. Peruvian ceviche is a product of many influences: fish from the Peruvian sea; limes of the type grown on the north coast of Peru, known as limón sutil, originally from Asia; red onions brought to South America by the Spaniards; and chillies from the Andes and the rainforest.
Every region and every family in Peru has its own version of the dish, influenced by the ingredients that are available from one place to another, by family traditions, by the advice of local fishermen and by the celebrity chefs on Peruvian television. Even far from the sea, the Andes and the rainforest areas have their own variations. In Lima, we include fresh boiled corn, coriander, fried dry corn, sweet potato and iceberg lettuce along with the seafood. In Peru, the fish most commonly used are lenguado (sole), corvina, pejerry (silverside) and bonito. We also use various types of rock fish, as well as sea urchin, octopus and black mud clams. At home and in Australia, I prefer to use firm-textured fish, but the most important thing is that it must be very fresh. (In Peru, back in the days before refrigeration, ceviche was eaten only for lunch, because the fish was fresh only in the morning, and in some places that belief is still held.)
There are two schools of thought on how long the fish should be marinated in the lime juice. Traditionally, the fish was "cooked" in the acid for quite some time, but today it's pretty much eaten as it's made. Even a short marinating time means the proteins on the surface of the fish coagulate slightly and the fish appears to "cook", an effect caused by the difference in acidity between the lime and the fish flesh. It's important not to press the limes too hard when you're juicing them, because you don't want to release any bitterness from the pith.
In a good ceviche, the fish is full of flavour, the lime juice mixture is nice and thick, the onions are crunchy, the chilli is present but not overwhelming, the sweet potato provides sweetness, and the cancha (fried Andean corn) provides more crunchiness. It should be eaten with a spoon so that you have a little of everything in each mouthful. The biggest mistake you can make with ceviche is to allow the acid of the lime juice to dominate. In a perfect ceviche, there is a balance of salt, acid, onion, umami, and the rounded, fresh flavour and firm texture of the fish.
Taking my national dish beyond Peru's borders makes me very proud, and I'm happy to share these recipes with Gourmet Traveller readers.