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.
- 1 sweet potato, cut into 1cm-thick rounds
- 30 gm caster sugar
- 1 star anise
- ½ cinnamon quill
- 100 ml lime juice, plus extra to taste
- 70 ml fish stock
- 50 gm white-fleshed fish trimmings
- 5 cm piece celery stalk
- 10 gm (2cm piece) ginger, coarsely chopped
- 1 garlic clove
- 1 small Spanish onion, thinly sliced
- 2 coriander sprigs, plus 1 cup coriander
- ½ small green chilli
- 200 gm Palmers Island mulloway, cut into 2cm-thick pieces (see note)
- ½ small birdseye chilli, seeds removed, finely chopped
- 1Place sweet potato in a saucepan with sugar, star anise, cinnamon and 1 litre water, bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook until tender (5-10 minutes). Drain and set aside.
- 2Blend lime juice, stock, fish trimmings, celery, ginger, garlic, 20gm onion and 1 tsp fine sea salt in a blender until smooth.
- 3Add coriander sprigs and green chilli and blend until finely chopped.
- 4Pass through a fine sieve and refrigerate until chilled (20-30 minutes).
- 5Combine mulloway and a pinch of salt in a chilled bowl and stir well. Add lime juice mixture to fish, then squeeze in extra lime juice to taste and toss to combine.
- 6Meanwhile, soak remaining onion in iced water (5 minutes).
- 7Drain onion, add to ceviche with remaining coriander and birdseye chilli, toss to combine, adjust seasoning to taste, then serve in a bowl with all the juices, with the sweet potato on the side.
Note Palmers Island mulloway, which is farmed in waters near Yamba in northern New South Wales, is available from select fishmongers. If it's unavailable, substitute another white, firm-fleshed fish.