If there's one single meal travelers need to try in South America, it's ceviche. The iconic fishy dish, based on seafood and citrus, can be found all up and down the continent, from Colombia's north coast to the southern tip of Chile.
There are countless regional preparations of ceviche, with more being developed all the time. The platonic ideal of the meal is found in Peru, where the classic preparation involves a small pile of raw fish in lime juice, garnished with onion and chile peppers, served on top of vegetables like corn and yams. Nowadays, chefs are getting creative, but many of the most innovative preparations all over the continent are still built using a Peruvian-style base.
Colombia is one country not necessarily known for delicious ceviche—it's commonly served in a less-than-appetizing "shrimp cocktail" concoction heavily slathered in ketchup and mayonnaise. Not the most tantalizing example of subtle textures and flavors. However, the country's ceviche scene is starting to take off, perhaps to fill the ketchupy void. Recently, I toured some of the most innovative ceviche spots in Cartagena with the help of local tour company This is Cartegena to discover the cutting edge of fish.
Mixing up the sauces and accompaniments is where chefs found the most opportunity for creativity. At El Boliche, an upscale restaurant in the historic walled city, we tried the tamarind ceviche, with watercress, tamarind sauce, onion, radish and chiles atop a seafood mix of fish, squid, shrimp, octopus, and clam.
We also stopped in at Malanga in the city's San Diego section. In addition to a traditional Peruvian preparation, the owner served up a shrimp and octopus dish accompanied with lime aioli, avocado, plantain, cilantro, and onion, as well as a mango-based ceviche complete with lime, coco sauce, coriander, cumin, onion, and avocado.
At El Kilo, another popular spot with fresh seafood on ice lining the window display, owner Gustavo Muñoz shared some wisdom on how to develop novel servings.
"We want to invent the best ceviche we can," says Muñoz, 36, originally from Peru. The restaurateur is also a chef himself and has traveled the hemisphere in search of the best ceviche recipes.
One of the dishes available is a ceviche with a sauce based on the lulo fruit, giving it an acidic flavor. "This is a fusion," Muñoz says. "I like to give the client a variety of sauces. Some are just lime, salt, cilantro, and a hot sauce. Others use ginger."
He mixes up the vegetables, branching out from the usual onion and chiles with a crunchy Peruvian corn, or some mango, or passion fruit or plantains, or sweet potato. Some of the ingredients are familiar, some a surprise. "This plate is representative of Peru," he says. "But you can't say this is Peruvian."
The fish is usually tilapia or robalo—many restaurants claim to serve sea bass, but they are probably lying, considering the species is nearly wiped out at this point. Regardless of the preparation, the key is to ensure the fish is as fresh as possible. "If you don't have a good fish," says Muñoz, "you don't have a good ceviche."
Not every chef agrees, however, with some opting out of fish altogether. One novel option that kept popping up around South America was vegetarian ceviche, for people who don't want to eat seafood or who are just looking for something different. Some of the meals did their best to replicate the texture and flavor of fish using soy or gluten. In Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador, I tried a soy-based ceviche at a retreat center that did a reasonable imitation. In a vegan restaurant in Medellín, Colombia, I encountered another soy dish that was presented more like a pâté, which I probably wouldn't have identified as a ceviche at all if that wasn't what it was called on the menu.
Other restaurants did away with the guise of fish altogether and used vegetables as the primary ingredient. There was one tasty offering made from avocado at the seaside town of Palomino in Colombia. In Iquitos, Peru, the Fitzcarraldo Hotel, named after the famous Werner Herzog movie, offered a dish centered around deep-fried broccoli. At that point I wondered why it wasn't just called a salad.
I also tried the exact opposite of vegetarian ceviche in what turned out to be a cautionary tale about the ethics of adventuresome eating. At a restaurant built on a porch overlooking the jungle in Iquitos, I spotted caiman on the menu. After a lifetime hearing about how alligator meat tastes like chicken, I was finally going to try some. It was good, if not particularly memorable—tasty, somewhat rubbery, and yes, reminiscent of chicken, served in the typical Peruvian way with the ingredients piled up in the center of the plate.
Later, it took just a few minutes of research to learn that the caiman harvest around Iquitos is unsustainable and illegal, if unenforced. On the plus side, it turns out there's a good chance that I didn't eat caiman after all, and instead the restaurant sneakily substituted paiche fish, which has a similar texture and flavor. The catch? Paiche is overexploited as well, and quite likely endangered, although there isn't actually enough data about it to make a definite judgment.
Consider it an important lesson: There are a million ways to make ceviche, but do your homework before trying the more exotic ones.