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In its most basic form, ceviche is nothing more than chunks of marinated seafood. But in Peru, one of the countries with a solid claim to being its birthplace, this simple preparation has emerged as the most important dish of an evolving cuisine.

In the capital city, Lima, diners value fresh ingredients and complex flavor combinations. They also celebrate innovative and artful chefs. The spirit of this culinary scene is embodied in a plate of Peruvian ceviche, which brings together a mix of bright tastes—notably the tang of lime and the sharp bite of ají limo (Peruvian chili)—with the contrasting textures of tender fish, sweet potato, and crunchy toasted corn.

“We think ceviche started in the north of Peru with the old Mochica culture [first to eighth centuries c.e.],” says Gastón Acurio, proprietor of La Mar Cebichería and Peru’s best-known chef. “It is a very old tradition for fishermen to take along a bit of salt and ají in the boat and eat the fresh fish at sea.”

But just as Peru’s culture is a blend of Inca, Spanish, African, Japanese, and other influences, ceviche is likewise a hybrid. Five hundred years ago, Spanish conquistadors brought limes and onions to the Southern Hemisphere, providing two fundamental elements for classic Peruvian ceviche. The raw fish was “cooked” for hours in lime juice with onion and ají limo, and its consistency changed as though the fish had been blanched in boiling water.

For centuries, after the day’s catch found its way to land, it was made into ceviche almost exclusively by fishermen’s wives. Outside the home, the dish was available only at market stalls in fishing villages. That began to change in the 1950s, when Japanese immigrants, whose ranks swelled after the initial arrivals in 1899, established Lima’s first cevicherías—small restaurants serving only ceviche. In the 1970s, the Lima metropolitan area expanded and absorbed fishing towns such as Callao and Chorrillos, and cevicherías proliferated. The Japanese custom of eating fish absolutely raw inspired Peruvians to try shorter marinade times, bringing them down to the half minute that is common today.

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Ceviche remains a lunchtime staple in Peru—traditionalists would never dream of eating it past midafternoon, when the fish caught that morning is no longer considered fresh. Even for lunch, Lima’s fashionable restaurants have taken the dish to new heights. In 2005, Acurio opened La Mar, the first upscale cevichería, and accelerated Peru’s novoandina (New Andean) cuisine movement, which blends local ingredients and recipes with refined gastronomic techniques and concepts. Acurio has invented such bold ceviche combinations as ahi, cucumber, avocado, and tamarind; and mahimahi, peanuts, ginger, mango, and wonton strips. In the last five years, he has opened branches of La Mar Cebichería in eight Latin American cities outside Peru as well as in Madrid, San Francisco, and New York City. Acurio aspires to make Peruvian ceviche as well known across the globe as sushi.

Although versions of the dish can be found in Chile, Mexico, and Polynesia, Peruvian ceviche stands out for its inventiveness and variety. For a classic cevichería experience in Lima’s Chorrillos district, visit Restaurante Sonia (Calle Santa Rosa 173, 51/1-01-467-3788, restaurantsonia.com). In the Miraflores neighborhood, La Mar is the temple of novoandina ceviche (Avenida La Mar 770, 51/1-01-421-3365, lamarcebicheria.com). You can try making ceviche and other local dishes on culinary tours of Lima organized by Norma and Sandra Gamio for their cooking-vacation company, Pica Peru (866-440-2561 in the United States, 51/1-252-9642 in Peru, peruculinaryvacations.com). A

Classic Peruvian Ceviche
Adapted from Gastón Acurio’s recipe served at La Mar Cebichería

Leche de Tigre Marinade
1 cup freshly squeezed key lime juice
1⁄2 pound raw halibut fillet* 1 clove garlic
1 1⁄2 cups fish stock
1⁄2 habanero chili
1 sprig cilantro
1 stalk celery
1 medium white onion

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Thoroughly mix all the ingredients in a blender. Strain. Set the liquid aside.

1 1⁄2 to 2 pounds raw halibut fillet*
Salt to taste
1⁄2 habanero chili, finely diced
1 cup ice cubes
1 1⁄4 ounces red onion, finely sliced
1 1⁄2 ounces cooked choclo (large-kernel Peruvian corn) or yellow corn**
1 ounce cooked sweet potato, cut into small cubes or circles
1 sprig cilantro or 1 lettuce leaf

1. Chop halibut into 3⁄4-inch cubes. Place in a bowl.
2. Add salt, habanero chili, and ice cubes.
3. Add the leche de tigre marinade and stir.
4. Let the mixture set for 30 seconds and then remove the ice cubes.
5. Spoon the ceviche onto a plate, top with the onion, and garnish with the choclo, sweet potato, and cilantro or lettuce.

*The fish must be perfectly fresh. If you didn’t catch it yourself or get it directly from someone who did, look for sushi-grade cuts. For health reasons, don’t attempt to make ceviche otherwise.

**Choclo, which has a denser texture and nuttier flavor than North American sweet corn, can sometimes be found in the frozen-food section of Latino markets.

Photo by David Nicolas. This appeared in the March/April 2011 issue.