Cebiche or Ceviche. What is the proper way to call it? Food historians claim nothing is more difficult than tracing Ceviche’s etymology. Nearly a dozen theories associate it with backgrounds as dissimilar as Moroccan, Spanish, Quechua or even English. The most peculiar theory was proposed by scholar Carlos Raffo Dasso, who said that Ceviche comes from Somabitch or “Son of a Bitch.” According to Raffo, many English sailors arrived at Callao port affected by canker sores. While tasting the acidic and spicy ceviche, these sailors yelled “son of a bitch!”
Notwithstanding its foreign influences, Ceviche carries traces from Ancient Peru, as it was consumed both by the Moche culture and the Incas.
Ceviche and The Seeds of Moche Power
The Moche thrived in the northern coastal region of Peru from the year 100 to 700 AD. Along with agriculture and Metallurgy, the sophisticated Moche also excelled in fishing. Navigating on totora reed rafts, the Moche set out to the sea by midday and fished overnight using a casting net or hook and line gear.
The Moche were fond of fish and caught about forty different species, such as seabass, tuna and Pacific bonito. They preserved their catch by mixing it with Banana Passionfruit juice and added ají pepper. The juice acidic content marinated or cooked the meat, adding a particular flavor. This archaic recipe is one of the earliest predecessors of the modern ceviche.
Ceviche, or rather its citric juice tiger’s milk, is considered a mighty aphrodisiac (scientifically speaking, only tuna, salmon and mackerel are so). But it was undoubtedly the Moche’s high regard for sex which helped to solidify such perception. A great part of Moche art and relics have sexual motifs. Out of thousands of ceramics, over 500 pieces depict various sex scenes. Their complex variety has led scholars to agree upon the key role sex played among the Moche. As Professor Mary Weismantel claimed, sexual drive was a sign of power, as its “reproductive capacity was a potent force channeled to serve economic and political ends..” Besides its obvious reproductive function, sex was an instrument for both gender and political domination.
If sexual drive was paramount among the Moche, then tuna ceviche was fundamental in their daily diet.
What about the Incas? Instead of copying the Moche style, Incas marinated their fish with a corn beer named chicha de jora. The alcohol content of chicha supposedly enhanced the fish flavor. Incas ate their fish with ají, and called their dish Siwichi, which in Quechua means “raw fish.” Other Inca tribes did not even use chicha to cook the fish. One of Francisco Pizarro’s soldiers, Gutierrez de Santa Clara, wrote that “the Indigenous people from this coast..all the fish they caught from the river or the sea, they ate it raw.”
Yet, Spaniards introduced an ingredient unknown to Andean people: lime juice. From the time of Spanish Conquest, lime was increasingly used by colonial cooks. Criollos eventually prepared Ceviche with lime juice.
Nobody knows when the name Ceviche became popular. In fact, the first proof of the name Sebiche came in 1820, with a song entitled “Chicha,” which was sung by soldiers. Written by José de la Torre Ugarte (author of Peru’s national anthem), “Chicha” had the following lyrics: “Bring the Sebiche,…which also invites and excites us to drink…” Some years later, another chronicler wrote that the masses ate Ceviche so heavily seasoned with ají “to the point of making them tear up.” In a way, both indigenous and Spanish influences survived. Today, the most basic ceviche consists of raw fish, lime juice, salt and ají pepper.
“You can’t cook Cebiche if you don’t have a good soul..if you only think about making money…Impossible! Why bother!?..there is a wisdom underneath, an instinct that unfortunately can’t be taught”- Chef Javier Wong
Let it be known that in the colony Ceviche was generally despised. For nearly four centuries (1532-1900), Ceviche was a plebeian recipe for the underclass. The middle class rarely cooked seafood, while the elite pursued French culinary trends. It is ironic that, after nearly four centuries in obscurity, Ceviche became the nation’s flagship recipe. Peruvian chefs now promote this magnificent dish in remote cities like Istanbul and Rabat. The rise of Ceviche was the outcome of a chain of events which began thousands of miles away, in Japan.
The Great Ceviche Revolution
In 1894, the outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese War left the Japanese state with scarce funds. While money was spent in weaponry, several villages endured scarcity. Japanese emigration companies persuaded farmers to try their luck in Peru. In 1899, waves of Japanese migrants settled in Peruvian farms. For starters, a fascination for seafood was a key component of Japanese culture. And for a nation not too fond of seafood, Japanese migration radically transformed Peruvian cuisine. Paraphrasing Chef Gaston Acurio “the Japanese revolutionized our Ceviche.” Accustomed to eating raw fish, the Nisei experimented with ingredients regularly used for sushi. Cilantro, celery, and ginger were fearlessly implemented. Other seafood such as octopus, squids, scallops, and Eels opened the path for variations of Ceviche mixto. It was an explosion of flavors and ideas which liberated Ceviche from the conventional realm.
As well as other Master Chefs, Javier Wong learned the hard way. The 68-year-old nisei Chef formerly used several ingredients for his Ceviche. After stating that “all Ceviches are great,” Wong has it clear now: using various ingredients disguises the true essence of Ceviche. Asked for his conception of Ceviche, Wong bluntly replies: “I define Ceviche as a way of perfecting simplicity…As time went by, I gradually eliminated many ingredients.” Wong finally narrowed them down to five: “fish, salt, onion, pepper, lime and… lots of love. With these, you can make the finest Ceviche in the world.” He has the qualifications to make such statement. Dubbed the World’s Greatest Cevichero, Wong has been the recipient of multiple awards in Gastronomic festivals worldwide.
For Wong, Flounder is the most suited fish for Ceviche. While slicing the fillets into squares over his cutting board, Wong claims to worship the flounder. “You can’t cook Cebiche if you don’t have a good soul..if you only think about making money…Impossible! Why bother!?..there is a wisdom underneath, an instinct that unfortunately can’t be taught,” he said. Such is one of Wong’s many idiosyncrasies while making Ceviche, which for him it is a sacred ritual. He hardly utters a word, as he is focused maneuvering his knife.
People come to watch the Master Cevichero in action at Chez Wong. Wong’s house-turned-restaurant seems unpretentious but the fancy BMW’s parked outside reveal his clientele. Once inside, his regular patrons let the master decide the menu of the day. It all depends on his mood. Those who don’t like his choices are welcomed to leave (although this is hardly the case). Prior a phone reservation, a meal for three can range around three hundred dollars. Not too bad for a Chef heavily publicized in U.S channels and the New York Times.
At the dawn of his life, Wong still dreams of perfecting his Ceviche. “If I could take away one more ingredient, I believe I can die in peace,” he concludes.
After being enjoyed for nearly two thousand years, and assimilating global influences, Ceviche is not only Peru’s greatest cultural icon but an emblem of diversity and multiculturalism.𝔖