How Not to Poison Your Friends with Homemade Ceviche


This story is over 5 years old.


How Not to Poison Your Friends with Homemade Ceviche

Made with raw fish and a “tiger’s milk” marinade of lime and chili, the South American seafood dish is a deceptively hard one to get right.

Ceviche in its simplest form is fresh raw fish, lime juice, chili, and salt. Stick it in a bowl, let the citrus cure the fish for a few minutes, and voilà, you're done.

Or so I thought.

According to Martin Morales, chef and all-round ceviche expert, one spoonful of chili too many or a pinch of salt too little, and the delicate balance is thrown off.

"Ceviche is like an orchestration of ingredients that are ready for a dance and must come together in a perfectly timed sequence," Morales tells me as he clears a space at the ceviche bar of his East London restaurant, named—what else?—Ceviche. "There are little chemical reactions going on that make the dish alive and create little explosions of flavour all over your palate."


Martin Morales in the kitchen at Ceviche Old St. All photos by the author.

Morales, who lived in Peru before coming to the UK as a teenager, tells me that he has been eating the national dish since he was a child. After swapping a career in music for Peruvian supper clubs, he opened the first of his now four London restaurants in 2012.

I've called on Morales to find out what goes into the perfect ceviche. And more importantly, how not to give my friends food poisoning when recreating the raw fish dish at home.

READ MORE: In South America, Ceviche Is About More Than Just Fish

Morales begins our masterclass by reeling off fact after fact about the long history of ceviche—7,000 years of history, to be exact.

"We think ceviche originally came from the Moche culture based in the north of Peru. The people of the coast were fisherman and wanted to preserve the fish," he explains. "And it was even done with dried fish as well as fresh."


Limes for the tiger's milk.

Before the Spanish brought limes and bitter oranges to the Americas, Morales tells me that a lesser-known citrus fruit was used by the Moche people to give ceviche its zesty taste.

"Our ancestors used this fruit called the tumbo, which we still use as well as key limes in Peru," he says. "It looks like an elongated passion fruit and tastes like a more acidic version of one. The flesh is more like a dull yellow and it's got orange pips."

There's no tumbo for us today and instead, Morales squeezes lime juice into the bowl. It forms the base of the tiger's milk, the name of the marinade in which the fish is cooked.


"No one really knows where the name leche de tigre came from," says Morales. "But there are all sorts of myths about it being an aphrodisiac or a great hangover cure."


Morales chops onions.

As garlic, ginger, coriander, and a killer amarillo chili paste are added to the citrus, I can see how it could give you a slap around the face if you needed it.

Despite not being entirely clear on the origins of tiger's milk, Morales' ceviche factoids keep coming.

"You can great ceviche in places like Mexico, Costa Rica, and Ecuador but in Peru, it's the national dish," he says. "Well, actually we have 492 national dishes—we're in the Guinness Book of Records for it—but ceviche is the number one."

I ask whether the dish differs across the country.

"It's a vast country and you do get different varieties in each region—on the coast, in the Andes, and in the Amazon," Morales says. "It depends on what type of fish is available. It can be made with river fish or Amazonian fish."


The sea bass rhombus.

But ceviche isn't all about produce from the sea.

"You can create ceviche with vegetables like asparagus or mushrooms," he tells me. "There's a famous dish from the north of Peru which uses duck. The meat is slightly cooked over heat and then infused with the tiger's milk."

Morales holds up a slice of the sea bass he has just sliced.

"See how I've cut it like a rhombus?" he asks. "It's so it'll cook on the edges but stay raw on the inside. Most people just cut it in cubes but I don't think that's right."


This is why I didn't attempt it at home first.

Casting my eye over the bar at Ceviche, which is covered with pots of gooseberries, corn, nasturtiums, and many other toppings, I note that there must be an infinite number of ceviche combinations.


The fish cures in the tiger's milk.

Morales agrees: "Exactly, and that's why the dish is attached to an 'eating out' culture. It is made at home but it's much more associated with creativity and innovation so people in Peru are more buzzed about going out to try new recipes."

As the sea bass goes into the tiger's milk to cure, so too do the final ingredients: red onion, salt, chili, and cubes of cooked sweet potato.

READ MORE: How My Ceviche Obsession Transformed My Life

"In the 70s when I was born, people would only eat ceviche for lunch because restaurants would get it in fresh off the boat, and then cure it for three or four hours," says Morales with a slight wince. "By 6 PM, it would be completely overcooked."

So what changed?

"The influence of migration and the rise of Nikkei cuisine [a Peruvian-Japanese style of cooking] meant that we started to eat ceviche a bit more raw," explains Morales. "It became kind of sexy to eat it in the evening and the younger generation started eating it with cocktails and beer. Our grandparents still wouldn't touch it at night!"


The finished ceviche dish.

The ceviche is finally ready and I pile a bit of everything onto my spoon. Morales was right. As I take a bite, the contrasting flavours and textures bounce off one another other. The chilies are tempered by the limes and the expertly cut sea bass clashes pleasingly with the crunchy onion and sweet potato crisp.

Morales leaves me to continue my ceviche education with a reservation at his other restaurant, Andina—located just down the road. I give the veggie option a go but the ribboned cucumber with grapefruit and mandarin just don't compare to the sea bass.

In Andina's yana ceviche, however, I find my favourite. The yellowfin tuna is marinated in a hot rocoto chili tiger's milk and balanced by pickled pineapple.

I think I'm finally ready to give it a go in my own kitchen.

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in August 2016.