It’s raw fish but it isn’t sushi

Maybe it has something to do with growing up in a fish-loving Bengali household, but I can scarcely remember a fish preparation in India I did not like. I have my favourites: the insanely spicy curry leaves; chili and coconut oil based karimeen pollichathu I had in a toddy shop in Kerela, with lots of toddy, of course; the Maharashtrian-style pomfret baked with hot green chutney stuffed in its belly that my neighbour used to make; or my all-time favourite Bengali machher jhal, where the fish is cooked in mustard oil. I can’t, however, recall ever eating fish in India that wasn’t fried, baked or simmered in a sauce.

Some 10 years ago when I was a student in Los Angeles, a friend of mine who had spent considerable time in the Peruvian Andes introduced me to a dish where the fish was primary “cooked” in lime juice with no heat involved. We cut up raw pieces of fish, tiny shrimp and calamari, put them in a bowl with thinly sliced pungent red onions, sliced Serrano chilies, coriander leaves, salt, and a dressing made mostly of lime juice — lots of it. The ascorbic acid from the lime changed the texture of the fish and made it firm and opaque. The chilled, delicate, sour and spicy pieces of fish made a cool, refreshing, light and very addictive dish. It is called ceviche (seh-vee-chay).

The chilled, delicate, sour and spicy pieces of fish make a cool, refreshing, light and very addictive dish. Debika Pal

Ceviche is a result of the age-old South and Central American tradition of preserving fish and shellfish combined with the introduction of citrus fruits to the Americas by the Spaniards. Its country of origin is disputed but anyone who has been to Peru, Chile or Ecuador has likely eaten some of the best ceviche the world has to offer. All the countries that prepare ceviche have their own traditions, recipes and special touches.

Once I learned to make a basic Peruvian ceviche, I started to experiment with other common ceviche ingredients to add to the fish and shellfish. Avocado and raw red onion remain my favourite since they pair remarkably well with fish and lime juice, but radish, cucumber, tomato, green onions, corn kernels, small chunks of boiled potato, mango, orange, grapefruit and even watermelon can be used. In my Japanese fusion version, sashimi grade yellowfin tuna paired well with mango and avocado, barely marinated in a dressing made of lime or key lime juice, soy sauce, garlic, ginger and a dash of sesame oil. Because ceviche is so light and fresh, it is best served for breakfast or lunch during the warmer months of the year.

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Technically the fish in ceviche is not cooked. Therefore it is important to start with very fresh fish of the best quality to avoid food poisoning from bacteria or parasites. I once ate shrimp ceviche in a taco off a street stand in Mexico and survived just fine. Eat it in restaurants or street carts at your own risk, or learn to prepare the very best yourself.

Once the ceviche is ready, the marinade can be strained and served in shot glasses. This spicy liquid is known as leche de tigre (tiger’s milk). Not everyone can handle the strong flavour; it is, after all, the liquid from the lime juice and fish, flavoured with garlic and chili peppers. Leche de tigre can be consumed as is, or sometimes it is mixed with alcohol and served as a cocktail. It is rumored to be a great hangover cure.

Fresh fish and seafood ceviche

Serves 4

This is as easy as it gets. Coriander leaves are used here but basil or mint can easily be substituted. The marinade must cover the entire fish or seafood. Prepare more if needed.

Leche de tigre can be consumed as is, or sometimes it is mixed with alcohol and served as a cocktail. Debika Pal

Main ingredients:

• 1/4 kg fresh white fish such as halibut, sea bass, or tilapia
• 1/4 kg mix of raw squid, scallops and/or small shrimp
• 1 avocado, chopped into bite size pieces
• 1 small red onion, very thinly sliced
• 1 Serrano or jalapeno pepper, or 1 red chili, seeded and thinly sliced
• 2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, minced
•  Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Marinade: (see headnote)

• Juice of 3 limes
• Zest of 1/2 a lime
• 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
• 1 garlic clove, finely minced
• Hot sauce


Beat together the lime juice, lime zest, olive oil, garlic clove, and a few drops of hot sauce in a bowl.

Cut up the fish into bite size pieces. Slice the squid into rings, like calamari. If using shrimp, devein and shell them completely and remove the tail. If using scallops, thinly slice each scallop.

Place the fish and shellfish into a shallow bowl or casserole dish. Add the onion, avocado, hot peppers and cilantro. Season with salt and pepper.

Pour the marinade over the fish. Toss or mix gently. Cover and refrigerate for 1-3 hours.

Enjoy. And if the marinade works as a hangover cure, let us know.

Published Date: Jun 14, 2011 04:35 pm | Updated Date: Jun 14, 2011 04:35 pm