Ceviche is a ubiquitous seafood dish throughout Latin America that originated in pre-colonial Peru. A lot of us grew up eating it at least occasionally, especially those of us who have family members from a coastal town in our countries of origin. Even if you never saw it on your table growing up, it’s an delicious dish that many of us have grown to love as adults, and has become widely popular in restaurants throughout the United States who’ve adapted and made it their own but nothing is as good as the original.
So where did it all start? Like many of our most-beloved Latin recipes, it has roots in Latin America’s Indigenous communities. While the history of ceviche is highly debated, much credit goes to Peru’s Inca civilization. Here’s what we know about the Indigenous history of ceviche, along with a few simple recipes to try at home:
What Exactly is Ceviche?
At the most basic level, ceviche is a dish of raw fish or shellfish that is cut up and marinated in citrus juice. Additional ingredients including onion, garlic, herbs, and spices are often added, and in some countries it’s common to also mix in veggies like tomato and bell pepper, or even different types of chiles. In Peru, where it is the national dish, white fish like sole or sea bass is most common, but in places like Mexico and Belize, shrimp, conch, and squid are usually used. Sometimes, ceviche is served immediately after the ingredients are tossed in the marinade and other times, it sits for a few minutes or even a few hours.
Ceviche May Date Back to the 14th Century
Many believe that ceviche dates back to Peru in the 14th century. At that point, the Inca people had already inhabited that land for at least a few hundred years. It’s believed that ceviche was invented in the town of Huanchaco, which is located on the northern Pacific coast of Peru. Some say the dish dates back so far that there are no written recipes for the earliest versions of it.
Indigenous Fishermen Are Likely Responsible
There’s evidence that Indigenous fishermen in that area of Peru would eat their catch right out of the ocean. “I watched women catching small fish and seasoning them with a lot of ground, hot [chilli] pepper and seaweed, and eating the fish just like that, with their hands, in their huts on the water. I can imagine the ancients doing the same, and the archaeologists there have found so many remains of seafood and fish in the guts of the mummies, and lots of hot pepper seeds,” said author, chef, and food historian, Maricel Presilla, who visited Montículo Cupisnique, one of the oldest sites in Peru, according to National Geographic.
Original Ceviche Was Spicy
Those fisherman would have been a part of the Moche civilization, which were actually a pre-Incan civilization, and at that time, they wouldn’t have had the citrus fruit (acid) to make what we now think of as ceviche. Instead, they would have likely used a large amount and variety of chiles. Citrus fruit arrived in South America with Christopher Columbus in 1492, along with onions, and later, traders from Asia, Spain, and Portugal brought in additional varieties. However, some of the Indigenous chiles are believed to have been quite acidic. Seaweed — which is used in some Peruvian cevicherias today — was likely also used.
Ceviche Was Reportedly Born as a Preservation Technique
That’s one theory, but others believe that ceviche was likely created out of the need for the Inca people to preserve their daily catch. They would have done this by seasoning the fish with salt and citrus juice. Fish would have spoiled quite quickly in Peru’s warm climate, so the idea of the Incas trying out different preservation methods also makes sense for their survival. Many Indigenous people relied on preserved foods to get them through lean times.
It Could Also Have Roots in Ecuador
There’s some debate that ceviche could have originated in Ecuador as well, since the Inca people also had civilizations there. But Ecuador’s version of ceviche much more closely resembles that of Mexico, which came significantly later in the timeline than Peru’s. This may indicate that Ecuador is simply one of the first places that the dish spread to after it became common among the Incas in Peru.
Recipes & Accompaniments Vary
Below we’re sharing three different ceviche recipes and they are far from what the Indigenous people of South America would have prepared, but each is similar to what is commonly served in throughout LATAM today. Depending on geography, ceviche ingredients may vary, as do the accompaniments. For example, in Peru, ceviche is typically served with corn, chiles, and sliced sweet potatoes, while in Mexico, it’s often served with tortilla chips, and in Ecuador, it’s served with popcorn or even corn nuts.
As we mentioned, firmer white fishes are commonly used in Peruvian ceviche. Trout is readily available and reasonably affordable throughout the U.S., so it’s a good fish to try making Peruvian ceviche with at home. The base for this ceviche recipe is simple: lime juice and fresh chiles. It also features thinly sliced red onion. The dish is then served with corn nuts and plantain chips for some extra crunch and a good hit of salt.
Get the full recipe from Peru Delights.
Red Snapper Ceviche
If you want to whip up some traditional Mexican ceviche, you’re gonna need to add some tomatoes to the mix. The base is the same though: lime juice, chiles, and onion. You’re also going to want to add some fresh cilantro. Mexicans also add toppings like avocado and pimento stuffed olives to their ceviche, and it’s served with either tortilla chips or saltine crackers. Hot sauce or even ketchup are sometimes used as condiments.
Get the full recipe from Mexico in My Kitchen.
Shrimp ceviche is so delicious and toothsome. If you don’t like the idea of eating fish that is “cooked” solely with citrus juice, it’s a great option, since it’s made with cooked shrimp. This ceviche includes onions, tomatoes, and bell pepper, but no chiles, so it’s not spicy. It also calls for ketchup in the marinade, along with plenty of citrus juice and cilantro. Serve it up with fried plantains, plantain chips, or toasted corn, and keep the hot sauce on the side.
Get the full recipe from Laylita’s Recipes.