The situation: It’s Sunday, and after a night out in Lima, Peru, you’ve found yourself in a cevichería. It’s more, you discover, than a mere place to order ceviche. It’s a cultural institution where lime juice abounds, and the events and misadventures from the previous night are discussed, reenacted and celebrated. Here’s your primer.
When to go: While most cebicherías are open daily, Sunday is traditionally their busiest day and visiting one is a weekly ritual for many Limeños. After partying until dawn the night before in Lima’s discos, you might rest for a few hours but still feel like the bottom of your shoe. The act of going to a cebichería is something that can both refresh and revive; a combination of hair of the dog and raw seafood. The experience begins in the late morning and typically lasts all day; the overindulgence may, on a good day, eclipse that of the night before.
The basics: Early, crude forms of cebiche (often spelled ceviche) began to appear in pre-Colombian times in the coastal civilizations of South America where fish was “cooked” with a fruit called tumbo. Later the Incas ate salted fish marinated in chicha, a fermented corn drink, and when the Spanish arrived, they added limes and onions to the mix.
Cebiche preparations vary from place to place—in Mexico, finely diced fish in lemon juice is served with crackers and Tabasco; in Ecuador, ceviche includes tomatoes and is much soupier; in the Andes, chefs use trout—but it’s the Peruvian version that’s recently caught on outside Latin America.
In Peru, cebiche is usually eaten as a first course or appetizer (though it can be a main meal as well). The dish requires fresh, quality ingredients; precise and lightning-fast execution; and a basic understanding of spices and acidity. The chef tosses fresh chunks of any firm white fish, such as flounder or sea bass, with onions, bits of Peruvian ají peppers, seasoning and—most importantly—lime juice only minutes before serving. Cebiche isn’t exactly raw like sashimi is raw, though. The acid in the lime actually cooks the fish just before you eat it, resulting in an explosion of taste and texture. In the same dish you’ll find a slice of sweet potato, a few sticks of boiled yucca and a small piece of corn on the cob.
Where to go: Pick up Lima’s restaurant guide, “Guia Gastronomica,” for suggestions, or head to the seaside districts of Barrancoand Chorrillos, and look for the crowds spilling into the street from restaurants like Punta Arenas or La Canta Rana. For a step up in price and quality, check out dining options in the Miraflores district’s Cebicheria Row such as Pescados Capitales or the trendster hot spot La Mar, owned by Lima’s outspoken TV chef Gastón Acurio. At either you’ll find local celebrities and wealthy Limeños sipping on pisco-infused cocktails and noshing on Novo Andino (New Andean) foods, including a lineup of ceviches and tiraditos.
Still, the best cevicherías are a bit out of the way. Sonia, a ceviche shack near the Chorrillos fish market that has grown a fanatic following, is tucked away in a far corner of the city. Sankuay, aka Chez Wong, sits in an unpretentious part of Lima, but the loyal ensemble of BMWs and Mercedes outside give it away as a culinary gem. Inside, chef Javier Wong takes a look at you and decides what you are going to eat. If you don’t like it, then leave.
Order like an expert: To begin, pick at the toasted, salted corn kernels called cancha serrana already on the table, and make your first order. Start with something to drink, say, Leche de Tigre, aka Tiger’s Milk. It’s like a kick in the face. More clearly defined, it’s the tangy juice left over at the bottom of the cebiche bowl served in a tall shot glass. Sometimes it’s mixed with a shot of pisco, a white brandy that is Peru’s national spirit. Throw in a few 32-ounce beers (always Pilsen or Cusqueña) for everyone to share. If dining after a rough night, opt for a pisco sour. Better yet, make it a double.
Next, move on to the goods: ceviche or tiradito. Cebiche comes in many forms: clásico (the traditional mix), mixto (with fish, squid, octopus and scallops), camarón (with crayfish), black conch (said to increase your sexual prowess), pato (with duck), and champiñones (with mushrooms). Tiradito is the modish, young cousin of ceviche. Created by Nikkei (Japanese) chefs in Lima, it relies on the tradition of dousing raw fish in lime juice, but the slices are paper thin and its makers add a spicy ají-based sauce.
Once you’ve finished your cebiche—another round of drinks, by the way, has likely been put on the table without your asking—you can order the rest of your meal. Your second course will be something hearty, and typically served with rice.
Need more starch? Try tacu-tacu de mariscos: day-old rice and beans refried and stuffed with seafood. Something more filling? Lenguado a la macho: flounder in a zesty sauce of onion, garlic, paprika, cilantro and rocoto peppers. Something unusual? Arroz negro: rice cooked in squid ink with sautéed squid, scallops and crayfish. Something multinational? Camarón saltado: a variation of Peru’s favorite Chinese fusion dish with shrimp instead of chicken.
Bask in the benefits: Die-hard connoisseurs will try to sell you the health attributes of cebiche like a can of snake oil—it will prevent sleepwalking, cure a hangover, and even increase your sex drive. While there may be some truth to their words, a visit to a cebicheria will at the very least guarantee good times and a full belly. Buon Provecho!
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.