What Is Ceviche?
Everything you need to know about the citrus-marinated seafood dish that hails from Peru, from its history to exactly how to make it at home.
From vibrant poke bowls loaded with ahi tuna, rice, and dried seaweed to nagiri served over hand-balled vinegared rice, raw fish dishes are a delicious staple of coastal cuisine. Another raw fish entrée you have probably seen on menus: Ceviche, pronounced "seh-vee-chay” and sometimes spelled as seviche or cebiche.
Here we’ll explain exactly what this dish is, its South American history—and essential tips for making your own ceviche at home.
What Is Ceviche?
Ceviche is a seafood dish where diced cubes of raw fish marinate in a lemon or lime juice mixture, and the reaction of the citrus juices cures the fish protein and causes it to become opaque and firm while absorbing flavor. This process is called denaturing—you’re more familiar with the process of denaturing with heat, a.k.a. cooking, but this reaction achieves a similar effect. After curing, the fish is then served with colorful seasoning elements such as onions, cilantro, and peppers. It’s a simple and bracing dish where fresh fish and bright flavors are put on display.
The ceviche method of preparing fish is elemental to coastal South American cuisine and was born out of the need to preserve food. The true birthplace of the dish isn’t completely clear: The Incan Empire preserved fish with fruit juices, salt, and chili peppers, and the introduction of limes from Spanish conquerors brought citrus juices into the picture. Some sources even indicate origins as far away as the Polynesian Islands in the South Pacific. Regardless of the exact origin, the most varied and plentiful examples of the dish are found in Peruvian kitchens and restaurants—the country has even declared ceviche as its national dish.
Variations of the dish exist across South and Central America. Ecuadorian ceviche tosses shrimp and tomato sauce into the marinade, and crispy tostadas or tortilla crisps accompany Mexican ceviche or the similar aguachile (shrimp drizzled with a chili-infused lime mixture just before serving) from the northern Pacific coast of Mexico. Caribbean styles include a creamy touch from coconut milk. Even within Peru, a Japanese-Peruvian version called Nikkei adds another layer of variation with finely cut fish amidst soy sauce, togarashi, and sesame oil. The dish made its way onto American plates starting in the 1980s, when Caribbean flavors came by way of Florida.
Ceviche Ingredients and the Best Fish for Ceviche
The elemental ingredients of any ceviche are raw fish, citrus juices and seasonings. First and most important to discuss is the raw fish. The best way to guarantee the freshness and flavor of your dish is to buy fresh fish from a fishmonger or fish counter you trust. Tell them you’re making ceviche so that they can offer insight on what catch is optimal on that particular day, but still use your own judgement when selecting fresh fish. Fresh fish smells briny and not fishy, and is firm to the touch. And always purchase seafood the same day you’re planning on making ceviche.
White, firm, flaky fish is optimal for ceviche, as this texture allows the flavors to be absorbed more easily. The best fish for ceviche includes snapper, sea bass, halibut, mahi-mahi, fluke, flounder, red snapper, halibut, and sashimi-quality tuna. Some versions also call for shrimp, scallops, squid, or octopus to include in the mix. A note on using shrimp or any other shellfish: Always blanch shellfish (cook in boiling salted water until opaque, then plunge into ice water to cool) to guarantee food safety.
The ceviche toppings add important texture and flavor elements that balance out the dish. Peruvian iterations include corn and cooked sweet potato, and verdant herbs such as cilantro and basil play nicely with the dish’s invigorating flavors. Tropical sweetness can come from mangos, papayas, or pineapples; crunchy spice from habaneros and bell peppers; and even creaminess from avocados (bonus: the acid in the mixture keeps the avocados from browning). Popcorn or toasted corn kernels are another favorite for adding a bit of crunch to ceviche.
How to Make Ceviche
Even across recipe variations, the basic steps of making ceviche remain the same. Dice the fish and marinate in citrus juices in the fridge. To make things go even smoother, wrap fish in plastic wrap and store in the fridge up until the moment you begin dicing—this will preserve the fish’s texture and flavor. Also, use a long, sharp knife as to not damage the delicate seafood.
When marinating the seafood (completely covered, as exposure to air can cause an inconsistent texture), timing is everything. Too short can mean too raw, but longer doesn’t mean better—the longer the fish “cooks,” you risk gummy, over-cooked seafood. As a general rule, the protein will firm up after 10 to 15 minutes, between 15 and 25 minutes it hits “medium,” and after 25 it becomes “medium-well.” Keep an eye on the fish and marinate it to the rawness of your liking, then add toppings and serve at room temperature or chilled.
Ready to try your hand at Peru’s national dish? Call on your fishmonger, pick your catch, start juicing some citrus, and use one of the following recipes for an exciting seafood entrée, no heat required.
Peruvian Ceviche with Leche de Tigre
Leche de Tigre (which translates to “tiger’s milk”) is a name for the citrusy, spicy marinade used in traditional Peruvian ceviche. Pair bay scallops with sweet potato, corn, and chilis, plus a topper of corn nuts for a delicious crunch.
South America, meet The South. Pickled okra pods, lump blue crabmeat, and flounder fillets get the ceviche treatment in a dish meant for Gulf Coast summers. Pro tip: Grill ears of corn before removing the kernels for a charred element.
Ceviche is a natural for summer dinners when even the thought of turning on the oven sends a heatwave through your beach house. Why not add watermelon, summer’s fruit mascot, to the mix? Just be sure to blanch the shellfish before marinating, then top with orange segments and mint leaves for a truly summery dish.