I traveled to Costa Rica my junior year of college and I fell in love with the country and its food. While my classmates in the study abroad program were out in the bars and the touristy places I was learning how to be useful in the kitchen. My host family, taught me how to prepare ceviche.
Ceviche (pronounced say-bee-chay) is a dish that is typically found in Latin America. It has as many claimants to its origins as there are recipes. Considering that each family seems to have their own recipe, it is a very widespread dish. Typically ceviche consists of seafood, with fruits/vegetables, and spices. There are also versions that feature such ingredients as plantains and guineos as the star.
Notice how I have not mentioned any form of cooking. This dish is essentially raw. Acid, usually a citrus of some sort, is used to denature the proteins in the fish as well as to break down the vegetables somewhat. Denaturation is when proteins are unfolded. When we cook our food using heat, we also denature the proteins, but there are much less pathogens to worry about.
That said, when making ceviche only use fresh fish. It is recommended that one use only the freshest fish possible when preparing this dish. Although getting sick from eating raw fish is uncommon, it is still possible with fish that has sat out. When selecting fish you want firm flesh. Marine fish are said to carry less disease. In order to get the freshest, I recommend talking to the fish monger directly.
The following pages contain the list of ingredients and the steps to create my Ceviche de Tiquicia. It should be enough for at least 4 people.
Step 1: Collect the Ingredients and Utensils
Not only does the fish need to be fresh, but the other ingredients as well. Limp celery will turn to mush rather than provide a satisfying crunch, the cilantro will be more bitter, and the garlic will be foul.
1 lb fresh firm white-fleshed fish (Tilapia is the exception here)
1/2 roll of cilantro (40 or so sprigs; leaves and stems).
1 medium onion
1 medium tomato
1 sweet/hot pepper (I like to use bell)
1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced finely (optional)
16 or so persian limes (the limon criollo is best, but the ripe key lime is hard to find. You only need enough to cover)
2 small stalks of celery (No leaves are needed)
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup water
1/2 to 1 cup ginger ale (I like Canada Dry brand)
A non-reactive bowl
Step 2: General Tips
The first thing one should do when making ceviche is make sure that their fish is in a safe location. Letting it sit on the counter while prepping other ingredients could lead to spoilage. I am a slow vegetable chopper so I leave it on the fridge.
Juice a good portion of your limes prior to starting.
Ceviche is what one makes of it. If I want to put hot sauce in it, then that is my decision. Not being safe is not an option though.
Vegetables should always be washed beforehand.
Do try using other types of fish and vegetables. Maybe some fruit. Just make sure it is all fresh.
Now onto the real thing.
Step 3: Chopping the Vegetables
When I learned to make ceviche they taught me to do it in layers. The first layer is celery and onion. I am assuming that readers know how to chop these. Place the chopped pieces into the non-reactive bowl. The size that I normally use is about a centimeter squared. It allows for them to be crunchy still after sitting in the acid for a bit. To get less crispy vegetables, the lime juice can be added now in part.
The next layer will be tomato which needs to have its seeds removed. A firm tomato works best because an old one will not tolerate the cold of the fridge nor the acid well. This layer is pictured in the 3rd picture. After this layer comes the pepper, this presents two choices in this recipe. One can either use a hot pepper or a sweet one (one can have both if they want though).
Costa Ricans typically shy away from overly spicy food, their food is generally mild and almost bland so a sweet pepper like the red bell is more common. With a sweet pepper, centimeter squared pieces are good , but with a hot one, it is best to cut it up as tiny as possibly to better distribute the heat and flavor. I only had a jalapeño at the time of making this dish so I used that instead of the sweet bell I like so much. You can see below how it is again layered in picture 7.
We are going to change gears here and swap over to the fish. I will be using tilapia for this instructable, but corvina or chilean sea bass is my top choice.
Step 4: Cutting Fish Into Cubes
Remember, the fresher the better.
I am working with tilapia in these pictures. My host family taught me to go against the grain when making initial cuts in the fish. This allows the pieces to stay together better. The process is shown below in the photos, but basically make vertical cuts against the grain to the width of your choosing. I aim for about a centimeter squared although sizes up to an inch are not uncommon. After vertical cuts are made, then horizontal ones are made to get the cube shape. Any pieces not to one's liking can be further trimmed. I know the center of the filet tends to annoy me.
Thickness in fish decides how long it will take to denature in the acid. Smaller pieces cook faster. For my recipe we want fish that is opaque or almost opaque. It will look like it was cooked with heat.
After chopping up the fish as shown in the pictures, it is time to add the cilantro.
Step 5: Cilantro and Other Spices
Now the cilantro and other spices are ready to enter the dish. While the cilantro is a must have for flavor, the garlic and others can be skipped without too much detriment. I am not too big on garlic so I use about 1 or 2 cloves at most and several shakes of salt and pepper. My host family used about 3 cloves and a teaspoon of salt.
The cilantro and garlic should be minced as fine as possible and then tossed on top of the fish. The salt and pepper can be added on top too. The layers do not really matter too much unless attempting to soften the vegetables first. After adding cilantro one can then add all or the rest of the lime juice.
Step 6: Lime, Ginger Ale, and Other Things
Now is the time to add the lime juice to the mix. Pour it over every inch of the bowl to get the denaturation process started. The goal is to cover the majority of the fish, and only use enough to cover. It took 16 limes for me to cover the contents of my ceviche. After the lime I waited a few minutes before tasting it. After I added the whole half cup of ginger ale. It makes the ceviche a bit sweeter than other people's and is also my formally secret ingredient.
After tasting the liquid one can add more or less ginger ale or even water if they so wish it. The water I listed in the ingredients was a requirement for my host family. I think it was added to counteract the salt. Depending on how my limes are, I may skip the water altogether or end up using as much as two cups.
If one wishes to avoid the ginger ale and water, they may skip it. For the sake of tiquicia or Costa Rica, I strongly recommend giving the ginger ale a chance.
Step 7: The Wait
Ceviche de Tiquecia requires about 2-3 hours to denature properly and may be stirred occasionally to ensure each piece has its proteins properly deconstructed. I usually turn it over once an hour just to be safe. The fish is done when it is opaque or looks almost like it was cooked by normal means.
Step 8: Enjoying Ceviche
Ceviche is typically eaten as an appetizer or as a snack during the summer time. It is a good way to cool off on a hot day. My host dad enjoyed this ceviche greatly with his beer. Ceviche is healthy and delicious. Its milky white juice called leche del tigre is said to be a hangover cure too.
I realize making a pound or more of this is crazy, but that's why we enjoyed it as a family. Do invite others to share in your cultural experience. The shelf life on this dish is about 30 hours or so in the fridge. The ingredients are continually broken down during this time however, so near the end it will be mush. The flavors tend to be strongest the day after. I do enjoy ceviche made at night in the early morning.
Thank you for reading my ceviche instructable and helping me relive a bit of my time in Costa Rica.