On a fall day Elie and I met up to embark on ‘project ceviche‘ Elie has returned to us from his travels to the depths of South America but a month ago and has since then tried to match some of the flavors and tastes he experienced while abroad. First on his list: tasty Peruvian-style ceviche. Take it away Elie!
(ps if you want to read more about Elie’s travels check out his blog Compass South!)
Many of us understand the two-faced nature of a craving. On the one hand, such virulent
desires have the potential to transform us into unwilling beggars – slaves to a sensual urge that
was developed through the ecstatic experience of a certain act of consumption. At its most vile,
cravings become addiction.
On the other hand, there is nothing quite like fulfilling such an inexplicable longing. We’re
not talking about cigarettes here. What we are talking about is ceviche, and it was on a
tempestuous Tel Avivian evening that the craving hit.
The culinary element of traveling to exotic lands often leaves the most profound impression.
Years after you have left a disparate corner of the Globe, one of the best ways to “return”
without airplanes to such places is by satisfying the taste buds and whipping up a dish that – for
the individual – helped define the experience abroad.
In the case of South America, few common dishes rival the sunny sheen of ceviche – ubiquitous
both on the coast and even hundreds of kilometers from the nearest beach. Peruvians see it as
their national dish, though the likes of it can be found in countries all over Latin America. It’s as
sexy and omnipresent as Salsa dancing (strangely enough the more ceviche you see the more
Salsa dancing you find). The small changes in the recipe, in my experience, mostly relate to the
side ingredients, the carbohydrates (potatoes [Peru], tortillas [Mexico], corn nuts [also Peru],
popcorn [Ecuador]) that add substance to a dish all-too-often mistaken for an appetizer, as well
as the type of fish used. I, for example, ate the most ceviche in the Amazon region of Peru – so I
chowed down on freshwater fish.
I’m no longer in South America, though! – so the craving for ceviche was distinctly jarring. It
didn’t take me long, though, to come to a promising conclusion. Since I’m in Tel Aviv, I knew
exactly who I needed to turn to in order to make my mouthwatering hallucination for ceviche a
reality: I needed to go to Zoe’s.
Needless to say, Zoe was quick to agree to the challenge.
“Call me tomorrow whenever; I’m not working,” she told me from behind the counter at Café
And so I woke up and, instead of sleepily ruminating on a cup of muddy Israeli coffee, I picked
up the phone pondering scales and fins.
Zoe and I both understood that the biggest game-changer in ceviche is the fish: both its
freshness and its agreeability to the acidic cooking process. We grabbed a bag and headed to
her local fish guy, which became issue number-one. Fish guy was closed. We tried to not let
that dampen our moods, and even considered heading to Jaffa, when a local woman hollered
at us from the backseat of a motorcycle leading us in the direction of an unnamed, red-headed
fishmonger located on the west side of Shuk HaCarmel. Without apprehension, we decided to
take our chances.
Maybe a half-hour later, and after several “poetic” attempts to track down this ginger pescadero
who is apparently named Simcha, Zoe and I discovered a clean seafood stand where the owner
– employing a gracefully confident indolence – selected for us two glistening blue tunas. The
eyes, Zoe pointed out, were perfectly translucent, a necessity for selecting fresh catch – and the
fish smell wasn’t pungent.
After bagging our pescado, Zoe guided me through the busy alleyways of the central Tel Aviv
market to a stand that specializes in niche root vegetables. Perfect for us, the man was stalked
with a healthy supply of yucca, the desired compliment for Peruvian style ceviche. While I
selected yucca (also called cassava), Zoe stood enamored by a heaping pile of rotund taro
“Let’s try it,” she said, now finished gaping at the spherical root. We added taro to the bag of
yucca and, after picking up a few necessary accoutrements, headed back to the Kitchen.
Eh-hem, I need to interrupt here for an aside to this wonderfully charmed afternoon. Yes we bought this taro root, having never cooked with it before, and decided to boil and mash it AS WELL as slice it thin and fry like a chip. Everyone loves taro chips! They are totally the best flavor in those delightful gourmet veggie chip assortments! What we didn’t anticipate was taro’s nastier side, the side that leaves an itchy irritated feeling in the back of your throat. Which you can only really get rid of with a proper salt water gargle and time. Apparently it contains a kind of toxic slime and when not cooked through wreaks havoc on your throat and tongue. This was our biggest boo boo of the day, thank god. And while it didn’t kill us – we decided to nix the taro for the day and focus our attention on the ceviche at hand. Funny stuff watching our friend Erez pace around in a panic over taro. Fun-ny stuff.
OK– Back to you Elie!
Ceviche is easy. It’s so easy you don’t even have to light a fire – albeit we did peel, quarter
and boil the yucca root in order to serve it as a neutral base for the highly acidic dish to come.
Our biggest challenge arrived when we had to gut and fillet these blue suckers. Though the
languid fishmonger did offer to prepare our fillets for us, we turned him down in favor of the DIY
approach. While the consequence meant we lost a little fish to the bone – inexact fillets, really –
the satisfaction of manhandling a whole fish outweighed a few grams of sacrificed meat.
Ceviche is an amalgamation of freshness. You need lemon juice, fresh cilantro (coriander
leaves), shaved ginger root, a little pepper (we used the white variety), a sprinkle of salt, a touch
of spicy chili and that’s about it. Given the simplicity of the ingredients, the surprising part about
ceviche is how differently it tastes almost every time you make it. Ceviche is all about balance,
and as such Zen principles go they are easy to flub. But a ceviche that comes out too acidic, or
too gingery, or the fish is grainy – well these are all issues that can only lead to better ceviche next time. At the end of the day, no matter how stormy,
it’s always worth a try.
Ceviche *serves 4 – 5 people a good helping of the stuff
1 fish (for this type of ceviche use a nice white fish, something with decent amount of fat on it)
filet, skin, and cut into small finger width pieces
Juice from 3 limes and 3 lemons
1 jalapeño sliced thin
2″ knob of ginger grated
1 red onion sliced very thinly
1 bunch of cilantro roughly chopped
salt and white pepper to taste
2-3 chunks of yucca (roughly 6″ long), peeled and cut into 3″ long blocks
salt to taste
Bring a pot of water to a boil and add your yucca. This is the most time-consuming part of the process, so best to start with this. Let your pot boil without a lid for 30-40 minutes until soft enough to put a knife through. Drain, salt, set aside.
To ‘cook’ your fish, start by saturating the fish in paste of grated ginger, half the chopped cilantro, sliced jalapeño, salt and pepper. Get the rest of your ingredients ready in a larger bowl. After 5 minutes or so dump your fish into it’s citrus bath and let the whole mess chill for 15 minutes or until the flesh of the fish is milky white. But be sure not to let it sit much longer or the fish will not have the desired texture. Serve a heap of it over the yucca and top with more fresh cilantro and salt and pepper to taste. I recommend avocado on the side to cut the tartness… also ALWAYS have an avocado on the side.