What Is Ceviche?

A favorite in coastal regions of the Caribbean and Latin America, many people haven't experienced ceviche and thus inquire, "what is ceviche?".

If you've never heard of this ceviche, don't worry, most have not. Unless you're from or have frequently visited the coastal regions of Latin America or the Caribbean, it's unlikely you've ever encountered this food anywhere before. The closest thing one could compare ceviche to would be to say it's essentially the salad version of sushi. Here we will explore what it is, it's history, where it comes from, how it's made, regions where it's popular, different variations and preparation methods and even some health risks. let's first establish a quick comparison.

What Ceviche Is

Ceviche is a seafood dish made primarily of raw fish. Typically the fish is cured in a citrus juice, normally lemon or lime. It is seasoned with chili peppers, sometimes known as Aji. Depending on the preparer other seasonings like onions, salt or Cilantro may be used. It is often served with sweet potatoes, avocados or plantains to compliment its flavor. Being its primary ingredient is uncooked fish, this dish must be prepared and eaten fresh to minimize the chance of food poisoning. 

Where Ceviche Comes From

Ceviche is primarily found in Latin America and the Caribbean. While its stronghold remains in those regions it can also be found in many other areas such as the US, Mexico, and other larger countries. 

Regions of Popularity

Ceviche is popular in the following regions:

  • North America
  • Ecuador
  • Colombia
  • Chile
  • Peru
  • Honduras
  • El Salvador
  • Belize
  • Guatemala
  • Mexico
  • Panama
  • And several other nations 

A few quick notes, ceviche is considered to be part of the national heritage in Peru and even had a holiday named in its honor. The popular venerable dish did not first begin making waves in the US until the 1980s. 


How Ceviche Is Made

This varies by location and even more so by the individual making the ceviche. Broadly, however, there are two styles of preparation, traditional and modern. The differentiation between traditional and modern is not so much in the ingredients, but more in the time spent marinating. With traditional preparation, the ingredients normally marinate for at least 3 hours. With the modern style, popularized in the 1970s, marination can last as little as 30 minutes; and sometimes even less. 

History

The history of ceviche is long, varied and clouded in mystery, uncertainty, and legend as you'll see in the ensuing sentences.  Beginning at well, the beginning, there is some uncertainty regarding the origin of ceviche. According to some historic sources from Peru, it owes its birth to the Moche, a civilization that flourished nearly 2000 years ago where Peru stands today. 

There are other theories which attribute ceviches place of birth to areas as far out as the Polynesian Islands in the south pacific. Logically, Central America makes sense given the fact that in Peru and Ecuador, for example, share a great deal of their national cultural heritage mainly through the Inca Empire. 

Currently most historians agree Ceviche originated during colonial times in what is now Peru. Given the evidence of dishes, at least similar in nature to Ceviche dating back much further, historians theorize that that a predecessor of ceviche was brought to Peru by Moorish women from Granada upon the arrival of the Spanish. 

Variations and Prep Methods

Ceviche's base remains fairly consistent among all currently used methods of preparation, namely raw fish, citrus juices for marinating (lemon and lime are most common) and seasonings like onion, cilantro, and chili peppers. Variations in preparation come in the previously mentioned traditional style of 3 hour or more marinating and the modern style of short, sometimes nearly nonexistent marinating times. You also will see, especially among most Latin American countries, a bit of creative license taken with seasoning and garnishments. Check out a recipe here.

One example of local creativity with ceviche is in Ecuador. The Shrimp Ceviche there is sometimes made with tomato sauce for a tangy taste. 

Health Concerns

While generally healthy, ceviche does pose some health risks. Bad sanitary conditions during the preparation of the popular food can, in fact, lead to illness. Of course, contamination is the first concern with any food, but especially raw food, which unlike its cooked counterparts, does not have the ability to lean on the heat to kill away any contaminants that may get in, they have to be prevented from the beginning with raw dishes like ceviche. 

Furthermore, Ceviche can be the carrier of many pathogens, both viral and bacterial when not handled properly. In addition, the food can harbor a variety of parasitic creatures. According to the FDA, dangerous microbes abound in this dish, one of them is thought to have been behind, or at least contributed to, the Cholera outbreaks in Latin America back in the 1990s, which is caused by ingesting larval nematodes, commonly found in raw or uncooked fish and seafood. 

As of this writing, the American Dietetic Association urges women to avoid this food during pregnancy. The good news, is I've never heard a pregnant woman craving ceviche during her term. 

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What Is Ceviche?