Last week, Peruvian ceviche received the Unesco’s Intangible Heritage status, a prestigious honour that recognises a dish as a cultural emblem. In Peru, ceviche connects different regions—the west is marked by the long coastline of the Pacific Ocean, and the east is fenced by the Andes, which is the starting point of the mighty Amazon river. The terroir is reflected in the Peruvian diet in the form of fresh water fish and seafood—the hero ingredient of ceviche. The other equally important ingredient is fresh lime juice.
“There are about 2,000 varieties of lemons and limes in Peru; and I can guarantee that you won’t find such diversity anywhere else in the world,” says Peruvian chef Kinyo Rodas Tristan, who heads the kitchen at the Nikkei restaurant Koishii in Mumbai.
To prepare ceviche, fresh fish is cured in a mouth-puckering lime dressing leche de tigre spiced with chillies and red onions. This is mixed with boiled sweet potato to balance the acidity, says Tristan, and topped with toasted corn named chullpi. The blend of soft and crispy textures combined with the triad of sour, sweet and spicy flavours comes close to chaat—a ready template for the Indian palate.
About a decade ago, chef Manish Mehrotra introduced a tuna bhel ceviche at Indian Accent in Delhi. In 2021, chef Hussain Shahzad created a sea bass sev puri at The Bombay Canteen. In 2022, Koishii opened in Mumbai with five different ceviches, including vegetarian options like corn ceviche with spicy mayo, eggplant ceviche and the crowd-favourite, mango ceviche.
Now, there are a host of restaurants with ceviche on the menu, like Koko in Mumbai and Bengaluru, Lupa in Bengaluru, Heliconia and Slow Tide in Goa and the three-week old Mesa at The Lodhi in Delhi. Restaurants close to the coast celebrate fresh catch in numerous ways and ceviche is the trendiest entrant. For the conscious diner, it is a no-oil, low-fat dish, perfect for small plates that go well with drinks.
“In my home country of Peru, ceviche is preferably eaten in the morning, and is believed to nourish the body through the day. Alternatively, it is enjoyed with a refreshing bottle of beer in the afternoon,” says Rafael Estremadoyro García, who heads the kitchen at the Latin American restaurant Los Cavos in Mumbai. He uses just two words to describe the dish: fresh and acidic. With no access to Peruvian limes, he created his own acidic base by combining a little bit of Moroccan lemon, Indian lemon and Italian lemon. Indian chillies didn’t make the cut, so he imports the Peruvian aji limo pepper with mild citric notes. This forms the base for the classic sea bass ceviche at Los Cavos, and vegetarian options, like mushroom ceviche with a touch of coconut milk topped with avocado.
In Koishii, Tristan has developed the crowd favourite, mango ceviche, which is available all-year round. When Alphonso is not in season, they import mangoes from Thailand and South Africa. Although vegetarian ceviches are popular in India, it is unheard of in Peru, says Tristan. Peruvian chefs are inventive, but they don’t drift away from certain basic ingredients like aji limo pepper and chullpi (which come at an exorbitant price of ₹7,000 a kilo in India).
Garcia says in traditional Peruvian cevicherias (eateries dedicated to this dish), chullpi is a complementary snack similar to peanuts in India’s local bars.
Indian chefs have used ceviche as a template for experiments by transforming them into chaats and salads. Mehrotra served the tuna bhel ceviche by mixing it with tamarind and date chutney, mint chutney and saunth (dried ginger) chutney. “They helped mask the aroma of the tuna,” says chef Sandeep Namboodiry, who was trained by Mehrotra at Indian Accent Delhi.
Namboodiry has noticed Delhi diners are put off by raw diced fish in ceviches. When chefs get creative, as they are prone to do, they think of smart ways to appease their diners. He has introduced ceviche in a seafood salad at Mesa in Delhi. It is plated in a bowl with cooked seafood and the sauce leche de tigre comes in a sphere made with molecular gastronomy. Cut it open, mix in the dressing and the colour changes from blue to pink. Enjoy the salad and the theatrics.
Chef Akash Deshpande of Nava in Mumbai has a penchant for art, and experiments with this colour-changing trick too. He has a sea bass ceviche with passion fruit puree as the acidic element spiced with ginger, red chillies and fresh coriander. It comes with prawn crackers for crunch, chives caviar and purple cabbage foam that changes colour to pink. “The idea is to remind the guest of the sea during sunset,” he points out.
The adaptability of this dish to local flavours and seasonal ingredients makes it appealing for chefs like Hussain Shahzad of The Bombay Canteen and O’Pedro. “We live by the coast with easy access to fresh catch, and our country has a wide spectrum of acidic ingredients; be it tamarind, kokum, Goa-style vinegar, Indian gooseberry and tree sorrel.” He has used some of these in innovative ways. The Bombay Canteen’s sev puri ceviche has crispy fried chapati as the bite-sized puri topped with cured sea bass, raw mango and sweet-sour nimbu chunda chutney, garnished with pickled Bhavnagri chillies and nylon sev.
While experiments are endless, a truly memorable experience would be to relish this dish at a cevicheria in Peru. Garcia has three recommendations from the capital city of Lima: El mercado; Canta-rana; and La Mar, which translates to the sea, and has branches in the US, parts of South America and Dubai.