Ceviche is a popular Latin American dish made by macerating raw fish and seafood in an acidic liquid like citrus juice along with ingredients such as chiles, onions, and herbs. The acid in the marinade denatures the proteins in the fish, causing it to become opaque and producing a firm, flaky texture, similar to when it's cooked with heat.
- Raw fish and seafood macerated in citrus juice
- Popular throughout Central and South America
- Often includes chiles and onions
- Can be made from raw fish, shellfish, and shrimp
What Is Ceviche?
The word ceviche (pronounced "seh-VEE-chay") refers both to the food itself as well as the method for preparing it. Different countries in South and Central America have different spellings for the word, with seviche or cebiche being some of the most common variants. And each country puts its unique spin on the dish, whether by using different fish or seafood or by what sorts of ingredients are used to prepare the marinade.
In general, though, ceviche is made by macerating chunks or slices of raw fish, shellfish, or shrimp in an acidic marinade, usually comprising some sort of citrus juice, commonly lime or lemon, but also including orange, bitter orange, or other citrus fruits that are native to the region.
How it works is that the acid in the marinade produces changes in the appearance and texture of the proteins. The proteins in fish and seafood are made up of long chains of amino acids, which, when exposed to acid, break apart and arrange themselves into different configurations, forming new bonds with nearby proteins. This is called "denaturing" the proteins, and it's most commonly done by cooking with heat.
With ceviche, the fish undergoes some of the changes that take place during regular cooking, such as changing color, going from translucent to opaque, and becoming firmer and flaky, but without the use of heat. This means that even though it changes the color and texture of the fish or seafood, it doesn't change the flavor, as happens when cooked using heat, so it retains its fresh, raw flavor.
Another thing that happens when proteins are denatured is that they release water, and in the case of ceviche, that means that the fish's natural juices are released, where they mingle with the citrus juice and other ingredients to form a sort of super-flavorful broth.
Ceviche is popular throughout Latin America. Here are a few of the most common variations, and the countries where each one originates.
Peruvian Ceviche: Peruvian ceviche is traditionally made with sea bass, combined with lime juice, onions, chiles, along with cooked sweet potatoes and corn on the cob.
Ecuadorian Ceviche: This variation traditionally features shrimp marinated in a tomato-based sauce along with lime juice, bitter orange, and salt, and served with toasted corn kernels resembling popcorn.
Mexican Ceviche: The classic Mexican ceviche is made from fish such as mahi-mahi, tilapia, sea bass, red snapper, scallops, and shrimp, marinated in lime juice, along with tomatoes, onions, cilantro, tomatillos, avocados, olives, and cucumbers, and served with tortilla chips.
How to Make Ceviche
Making ceviche starts with the freshest fish and seafood you can find. This is for the sake of flavor as well as food safety, since marinating in acid doesn't kill the bacteria that cause food poisoning as effectively as cooking does.
Next, slice or dice your fish and seafood into small slices or chunks, which gives it more surface area for the acid to act upon. Getting the pieces fairly small is actually an important part of the process. If left in the marinade too long, the fish can take on a chalky texture, and eventually fall apart. Usually, beyond 30 minutes you're in danger of overcooking it. So you want your pieces to be small enough so that after 15 to 20 minutes, the outer parts will be firm and opaque while the center is still translucent. Around 1/4 of an inch is about right.
Snapper, sea bass, halibut, mahi-mahi, and tilapia are popular fish for making ceviche, as are shrimp, scallops, squid, and octopus. Other ingredients often include onions, chiles, cilantro, tomatoes, avocado, corn, sweet potatoes, as well as passion fruit, coconut milk, celery, and mango.
Lastly, with ceviche, once your seafood has reached your desired state of doneness, you need to serve it right away. Holding it for later, even in the refrigerator, won't work, as those acids will continue doing their thing for however long you leave them.
Here are a few examples of classic ceviche recipes from around Latin America.
You might wonder what to do with any leftover ceviche you might happen to have. Can you store it? Freeze it? Unfortunately, the answer is no, for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, marinating in acid does not kill the bacteria that cause spoilage or food poisoning the way that cooking with heat does. Which means that simply storing your leftover ceviche in the fridge will allow those bacteria to continue to multiply. Secondly, the acids in the marinade will continue to denature the proteins in the fish, so within a few hours the fish will be dry, chalky and falling apart. Your best bet, then, is to make sure you don't prepare more ceviche than you can finish in a single sitting.