If there is one dish that defines Peru and its people, it has to be ceviche, a fresh fish delicacy born at the hand’s of fishermen in Peru’s Pacific ocean. Long ago, before the Spaniards landed on Peruvian shores, fishermen prepared ceviche with only ají (Peruvian hot pepper/chilli). Today, a traditional ceviche has just a few extra ingredients: lime, salt, and red onion.

Hot chili peppers from Peruvian Amazon

Ceviche is the object of all Peruvian’s gastronomic desires, admired by many, a symbol of patriotism for expatriate Peruanos, representative of home, family, and country. In Peru, “ceviche” and “mar” (ocean) are synonyms, for ceviche owes its fame and glory to the Peruvian ocean and its vast supply of fish. It’s the staple dish of familial Sunday lunches, of long summer beach days, of life’s celebrations, of the day-after the big party – of Peruvian soul: “You got a promotion at work?” Ceviche! “You’re suffering from a hangover?” A Cevichito! “Your football team won?” Ceviche, por favor! “Your daughter is going to be baptized?” A ceviche, compadre!

Ceviche is Peru. Don’t ever try telling a Peruvian that the real ceviche exists somewhere else in the world, or that the correct way of making ceviche is by adding atrocities like tomatoes or celery. What you will get in return is a look of horror followed by a little disrespectful smile and a pat on the back, pretty much telling you to please go away. (You may also get yelled at, insulted – even physically punished). From then on, your reputation about all other things in life will be highly questioned.

Topping this ceviche is one of the world’s hottest peppers, “rocoto,” found only in Peru.

Peruvians enjoy disagreeing about even the most fundamental things; so, naturally, they disagree on how to spell ceviche. There are at least 4 variations on the spelling: Cebiche, ceviche, sebiche, seviche. Peruvians will also enthusiastically engage in discussions as to where you can eat the best ceviche or which is the best way to make this king of all dishes.

It’s important to realize that ceviche, at its best, is a simple dish, always made to order. You already know the ingredients for traditional ceviche. From there, depending on where you go in Peru, you’ll find additives like garlic; black pepper (powder form); cilantro (like in northern Peru – Chiclayo); cocona, a tart fruit from the jungle used in Amazonian ceviche; tumbo, a highly acidic fruit from the Andes. An ingredient I would never add today, but has been used for decades and continues to be used by some old-fashioned and stubborn chefs in Peru is Ajinomoto, which is Japanese monosodium glutamate (MSG). It is supposed to enhance the flavors, but I don’t believe it’s necessary.

Ceviche, luxurious in its simplicity, has been complicated (for better or for worse) with the passing of time. You’ll find certain ceviches touting aphrodisiac qualities, like ceviche de cochas negras, made with black/mangrove clams from northern Peru that lend a dark purple color to the dish, not unlike the black ink of a squid; or ceviche con erizo de mar (with sea urchin). At modern restaurants, you’ll see ceviche with leche de tigre (tiger’s milk) – which has no milk at all (although some crazy Peruvians will readily argue about that, too).

Leche de tigre is basically the leftover lime juice that has the concentrated flavors of fish, onions, and hot peppers – and you drink it in little shot glasses, especially when you need a cure for the cruda (hangover).

Sea urchin, “erizo de mar”

There’s also ceviche mixto, with calamari, shrimp, and mussels. But be aware that for ceviche connoisseurs, this ceviche mixto should not be confused with ceviche con pulpo (octopus). It’s not the same to make ceviche with shrimp than ceviche with octopus. Who knew?

One of my favorite derivatives of the classical ceviche is the tiradito in all its countless forms. Instead of cutting the fish in cubes, you cut it paper thin, and rather than tossing it with lime, you place it on a plate, then you add the lime or sauce (many variations) on top.

How to make ceviche involves some technique. The equilibrium of the ingredients is not found in a perfect recipe, but rather, in the hands of the cook, his/her palate, and his/her disposition. You cannot make ceviche in a rush, when you’re upset or impatient. This is the kind of dish you make while you drink a cold one, while talking to your guests. To make a good ceviche, you have to be in good spirits – and be thankful for life!

The best ceviche I’ve had in my life is my father’s. Doted with Merlin-like wizard talents in the kitchen, he achieved the perfect alchemy of ingredients for a memorable ceviche. During my stint in culinary school in Peru, I tasted many ceviches – including the ones I made. But only one ceviche revived the memory of my father’s dish. Appropriately, it was at La Picanteria, featuring ceviche northern style – from Chiclayo, where my father was born.

My dad. I always cook with him in mind.

Here’s my own creation, ceviche with leche de tigre, which I tried on my uncle Enrique while I was in Peru. He said that it was the best ceviche he’d ever had, after his, of course.

I will be sharing my recipes for traditional ceviche, ceviche mixto, tiradito new style, and leche de tigre soon.