Cubes of fresh fish and shell-fish rise in a mound as if an island rising from a sea of lime and fish juice. A small crest of seaweed tops them reminding one of a tropical, volcanic island. One only misses milling clouds above them.
Typical of the Peruvian coast where fresh catch fish is easily available from the very rich waters just off shore the dish has spread to the whole country, including Cuzco. Not only do Cuzco’s restaurants rely on trout from nearby fish farms, they even more use fish and sea food flown in daily on ice from the coast only an hour’s flight away. Cuzco now is at the end of a distribution line that begins everyday when boats set out to sea on the Pacific to fish.
As a result, Cuzco fields a growing number of restaurants specializing in Peru´s favorite fish dish, ceviche–also spelled cebiche, sebiche, or seviche. A favorite among them for the people of this ancient city is Las Machitas (Avenida Peru F-9) in suburban Wanchaq, just five minutes by cab from the city’s tourist center.
The Plaza de Armas with its offering of good restaurants seems a world apart from the places where the city’s people reside and eat. Its restaurants respond more to Lima and Paris than to the needs of the people of this Imperial City. But outside that area it is like entering a different country. And suburban Wanchaq, with its large middle-class neighborhoods, typifies that place.
Las Machitas stands on a side street near Wanchaq’s main plaza, the Tupac Amaru Square, with its massive equestrian statue. For all the world it looks like a multistory apartment building, instead of one of Cuzco’s most important cevicherías. The Peruvian flag as well as a flag with the symbol of the Peruvian Mark (trademark) gives away that it is more than an apartment building.
Instead with its ample space and nautical decorations, it is one of the most popular restaurants in the city. On weekends it pumps raw energy as plate after plate of fish, seafood, and typical dishes from Peru’s north flow from the kitchen.
Open daily from 10 am to 4 pm, the restaurant has an ample menu of ceviches, based on different combinations of fish varieties and sea food, as well as tiraditos–the strips of raw fish in a sauce, kind of a sashimi meets Inca– and an extensive listing of creole dishes from the north.
In addition to its fixed menu it has a board which lists the ever changing daily offerings and specials.
The service is good and the plates are ample. Though ceviche is increasingly becoming codified in terms of the expected balance between the acidity of the limes and the flavor of the fish, this ceviche is heavier on the lime than is common on the coast. Nevertheless, the flavor is excellent and the pieces of fish are fresh and firm. It is a good mix.
The service begins with a bowl of hot chilcano, a milky fish soup, to which Peruvians will often add toasted corn called canchitas and chopped bits of hot red rocoto pepper. With the green flecks of herb, the soup becomes a multi-color and multi-textural experience.
Though ceviche comes from the coast, the restaurant is very much part of a contemporary experience of Cuzco and the food trends that shape it. As an example of this, over the rock fountain by the main entrance, one finds a small shrine with braided garlic in a cross which many Cuzqueños keep on their doors to ward off evil winds.
Though the ceviche and tiradito at Limo or Yuraq, among others, are outstanding, with their air of high cuisine, at Las Machitas — whose name probably refers endearingly to machas a popular kind of mollusk native to the Peruvian and Chilean coast — is worth a visit if you want to enter a more ordinary middle and upper-middle class Peru.
Before ending this note it is worth continuing with the spelling theme of our last post, even at the risk of being too geekish.
In English the “v” spelling is preferred, while in Peruvian Spanish the “b” is the preference. The Royal Spanish Academy in its dictionary also exercises a preference for the “b”. Though some dialects of Spanish distinguish these two letters with different sounds, generally they are indistinguishable to most speakers. What variation there is seldom fits cleanly with the distinctions in spelling. As a result, there are usually historical, rather than phonological, reasons for using one letter or another.
In this case, the argument takes us either to Arabic for the origin or to an indigenous language of the Peruvian coast. Despite this, the “v” form was probably generalized earlier from which its was borrowed into English.
The issue of “s” or “c” is a similar debate on difficult terrain. While the “c” spelling is the most common in both English and Spanish, the “s” certainly maintains its adherents in Spanish. The reason is likely that in Spain the two letters are phonologically different. In Latin American Spanish, the sound is definitely not that of the “c” in Spain, but rather of the “s”. However, in Latin America that phonological distinction is not relevant since almost not one, unless putting on airs, attempts to pronounce like Spaniards.
By the way, on Las Machitas menu the dish is spelled “ceviche”.
Yikes, this is all so complex and turbulent like a sea in a hurricane. Forget the spelling though. A heaping plate of ceviche is all you need. It will keep you coming back for more, even if you try alternate spellings.