Food & Drinks

Ceviche, History’s Treasure

Exotic, exquisite, and yet sharp; that is how many describe ceviche.   But that is only one way. The dish has given much to talk about since it has been able to conquer even the most demanding palates of the whole world.  As a consequence it has been the subject of various books, and is spreading quickly throughout the globe.

To think of ceviche is to think about Peru. This dish of fish marinated in lime juice, in various inventive and fascinating forms as well as in its most basic and traditional way, has become the most famous food of contemporary Peru at the same time it enfolds in his creation and eating much of Peruvian cultural history.

Creativity is a characteristic of Peruvians and, as a result, there is no single, absolute rule or recipe for ceviche, just as there is no single spelling.   It can be spelled cebiche, or seviche and, in the same way, each of Peru’s regions or towns people use somewhat different ingredients. As a result, ceviche is a masterful blending of flavors that is constantly surprising because of its variety.

For example, on the coast there is a wide range of ceviches made from different types of fish and shellfish, given the daily catch of seafood brought in by fisherman. Sometimes, ceviche is accompanied by an ear of cooked, fresh corn.

If we look at the highlands, ceviche there is also quite varied. But it is almost always accompanied by cancha, toasted corn, and arroz chaufa (fried rice).

Ceviche, Fried Rice, and Chicharron, Cuzco, Peru
Ceviche, Fried Rice, and Chicharron, Cuzco, Peru

Nevertheless, this famous and spicy concoction maintains the same flavor — of fish baptized in acidic, usually citrus, juice and pleasure of delightful taste and texture when one eats.

To know more about the origins of this dish that represents all of us Peruvians throughout the world, helps us grasp how ceviche encompasses so many of the variables that went into our formation as a country and a people.

There are many theories about the origins of ceviche, though the true version may well be lost in the mists of time. Nevertheless, here are some of the most common ideas to help you appreciate this dish and Peru more.

According to the historian Juan José Vega the origins of ceviche, or “seviche” as he spells it, come from the Arabic word “sibich” which designates acidic food. Vega tells how Moorish women — taken in war when the Catholic Kings of Spain conquered Granada, the last Moorish holdout in Iberia, shortly before Columbus made his way across the ocean — arrived in Peru accompanying Pizarro’s soldiers. There, they added to the ancient dish of raw fish with seaweed eaten by natives of the Peruvian coast the juice of bitter oranges and later the juice of limes.

Even the eminent Royal Spanish Academy argues that the word ceviche comes from the Arabic. It further relates ceviche to the term escabeche, which refers to things that are pickled, whether just vegetables or including flesh.

The erudite and scholarly student of gastronomy Carlos Raffo Dasso offers another source for ceviche, one that is a bit more spicy and probably mythical. He relates that English seamen arrived on the Peruvian coast with their mouths cankered. When they ate the delicious ceviche they soon began shouting in pain, because of how the hot peppers and lime juice caused their sores to burn.

“Son of a bitch”, they shouted.

Though unintelligible to the Indians, the sounds nevertheless caused them to try to say them to name their dish in remembrance. “Would you like a seviche” they began to ask.

In addition, the Peruvian historian Javier Pulgar Vidal argues the name of ceviche comes from a Quechua word “siwichi” that means “fresh fish” or “young fish”. One hypothesis argues that the words “siwichi” and “sikbaǧ”, an Arabic word like “sibich”, were confounded during the Spanish invasion of the Inca Empire.

As we can see, there are many theories of the origins of ceviche; they bring together the social complexity of ancient Peru’s encounter with Europe:  Indians, Spanish, Arabs, and English.  But arriving at the exact truth is secondary.  The most important thing is the experience one has of enjoying this exquisite food; it indeed is something that is worth talking about.

As we know, Peru’s seas produce outstanding seafood. For that reason the freshest ceviches are found near the coast, from Tumbes to Tacna. This is especially true when you find yourself on the beaches.

Man Playing in Ocean South of Lima
Man Playing in Ocean South of Lima

It is a complete experience to enjoy the fresh fish and shell fish they bring straight form the ocean to your plate.

On the coast one can delight in the most varied ceviches. But the custom of ceviche extends throughout the country and has spread to other countries, whether the Mexico which was tightly connected to Peru during colonial times or the United States more recently.

Fishermen, Pucusana, Peru
Fishermen, Pucusana, Peru

Ceviche is strongly represented in the Imperial City of Cuzco. Though far from the coast, we also enjoy good and fresh ceviches. They are made, not only from seafood brought by air to the city daily, but from fish caught in surrounding lakes and streams. As a result, trout ceviche is perhaps the most famous in Cuzco.

Other restaurants, such as the Cevichería “Rio Mar” (just off the Avenida de la Cultura near the University), brought their recipes to Cuzco from the coast. Rio Mar is an intimate place where you can sit outdoors and enjoy and excellent ceviche while bathing in Cuzco’s brilliant sun and drinking a dark Cerveza Negra Cuzqueña beer, while making unforgettable memories with your friends.

While Rio Mar is outside the colonial core that is the basis of our search engine, there is a cevichería in the area most frequented by tourists–El Mordisco (San Juan de Dios 298). Rio Mar is considered on of the best places for ceviche in Cuzco, though, and fills to the brim with locals at lunchtime. Novo-Andean ceviche and the related dish tiradito, is a specialty of the up-scale Limo Restaurant on the Plaza de Armas, the main square. It is also highly recommended.

There may be many recipes, places of preparation, and ideas of origins for ceviche, but we will never quit enjoying a good ceviche in Peru; some authors claim it can raise the dead, while others insist it is the best aphrodisiac there is.

Ceviche and Canchas, Rio Mar, Cuzco, Peru
Ceviche and Canchas, Rio Mar, Cuzco, Peru

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  1. No one knows the date of its origins, John. That is a problem of history for which I have not seen, yet, a resolution.

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