Fresh Fish, Latin Twist: Ceviche may be the perfect summer starter

What could taste more refreshing on a scorching summer day than an icy cold plate of fish marinated in citrus juice? Yep, it’s ceviche season, and lucky for St. Louis, there are plenty of chefs around town willing to squeeze lime after lime to cure sushi-grade fish so we can eat in seafood-salad paradise.

Though ceviche, also spelled cebiche or seviche, is enjoyed throughout Latin America, its culinary journey began in Peru, with Spanish and Arabic influences. “Early Peruvians ate raw fish and seaweed seasoned with ahi (chile), which evolved into what we recognize as ceviche when Moorish cooks who emigrated to Peru with the Spanish added lime juice and onions that they brought,” wrote Argentine Guillermo Pernot, author of ¡Ceviche!

You don’t have to trek far to sample Peruvian ceviche. Mango Peruvian Cuisine in Shrewsbury serves up ceviche de pescado made from fresh tilapia in a lemon-lime marinade, along with sliced red onion, chile peppers and cilantro.

Traditionally, Peruvian ceviche is made with a mild white sea bass called corvina. “We use it when we can get it, but that’s not often, so we use tilapia. … It’s the freshest we can find,” explained Sandra Calvo, manager at Mango and daughter of owners Jorge and Nori Calvo.

Peruvian ceviche is normally spicy, owing to the heat of chile peppers. Mango accommodates an American penchant for less tongue combustion, using only a tiny amount of minced rocoto chile pepper, a small hot pepper native to Peru and Bolivia and aji Amarillo, a South American hot yellow chile pepper. “But if a Peruvian comes in, they’ll say, ‘Peruvian style,’ and then we’ll make it really spicy,” said Sandra Calvo. Order it Peruvian style, and you’ll end up scarfing down those accompaniments that calm the heat – tapa-sized portions of cold choclo (large-grain Peruvian corn) on the cob and baked sweet potato – and some salty cancha (toasted corn nuts) that whet your appetite for seconds.

The classic prep for ceviche is to marinate and lightly cure the raw fish in citrus juices. The acid in the juice “cooks” the fish, causing the proteins to become denatured without the use of heat. The result: delicate texture and bold, ultrafresh flavor.

Lime is the most common juice selected for the marinade. However, a Peruvian limón is not the same as the lemon or lime that we can purchase in these parts. “In Peru, the limón is not yellow. It’s a fine mixture of Key lime and lemon taste. It’s a lot milder,” Calvo said. Mango uses its own mixture of fresh limes and lemons to squeeze out an authentic Peruvian lime flavor.

Ceviche recipes require fairly little marinating time. Depending on the type of fish and the thickness of the cut, the fish can marinate, becoming firm and opaque, in the time it takes to combine the ingredients. At Mango, for instance, where it is made to order, customers wait about 15 to 20 minutes for Nori Calvo, who prepares all the chilled dishes, to whip up this house specialty. “If we let it cure for even more than 30 minutes, we think it gets way too tough,” said Sandra Calvo.

Ceviche is customarily prepared using fish, but shellfish – shrimp, mussels, scallops and oysters – make for some standout ceviche. Whether raw or cooked before marinating, the marinade time will always be longer than for a fish ceviche. Not sure which one you prefer? Mango offers a ceviche mixto of cooked mussels and shrimp added to its ceviche de pescado.

Cultures are always borrowing culinary ideas from one another, and that creativity results in unexpected gastrodelights. Do quintessential Mexican ingredients like tomato and corn tortillas fit the context of ceviche? Absolutely, said Adam Tilford, chef and owner of Tortillaria Mexican Kitchen in the Central West End. Tilford has added ceviche tostaditas to his restaurant’s list of summer specialties. This Latin fusion appetizer (available weekend nights only) will feature a changing fish or seafood marinated in lime juice with minced jalapeño, diced tomato and onion, cilantro, and a pinch of sugar “to cut down on the acid of the lime.” La Tortillaria’s ceviche is clean and fresh, reminiscent of a mild pico de gallo. Piled atop a few crispy homemade mini tostadas, it’s the perfect beginning to a Mexican meal of say, Baja fish tacos and a side of street corn, or some light fare like black bean empanadas.

At El Borracho Taqueria y Cantina on Locust Street, chef John Griffiths imparts many touches of individuality to his ceviche. His citrus juice of choice is calamansi, made from a Filipino sweet-sour fruit. And you never know which fish he’ll choose: snapper, trout or another salmonoid. Most of all, Griffiths has fun messing with the veggies. He might add crunchy cucumber or radish to counter the softness of the seafood and to add “a burst of flavor that keeps your palate open.” Other things to look out for: Radish sprouts that sub for cilantro, and fruit such as Granny Smith apples that add texture, sweetness and a bit of body.

Sandra Calvo noted that Asian influences are becoming visible in Peruvian-style ceviches, particularly with the addition of ginger. Add sriracha hot sauce and coconut milk to the list of Pacific-inspired creations, like the ceviche de atún at Wapango, the Pan-Latin restaurant attached to the Chesterfield Mall. Wapango’s is a thinly sliced ahi tuna steak in a creamy coconut milk-based lime marinade that’s fired up with some generous shakes of sriracha. Chef Steve Monroe will mix that with colorful red and gold pepper batons, minced serrano chiles, cilantro, and tangy-sweet pickled red onions. Then comes the presentation: Create a cushiony bed with crisp romaine ribbons, mound the ceviche on top and garnish with a slender plantain chip. Height, texture, flavor and color.

Fresh fish plus aromatic marinade, herbs and spices plus vegetables or even fruits – a basic formula with limitless possibilities. Whatever your favorite ceviche sabor – Peruvian, Mexican, Cuban (mahi-mahi and lime juice), Ecuadorian (shrimp with tomato sauce), or Panamanian (gotta be habañero peppers) – opt to finish in Peruvian style.

The runoff from a batch of classically prepared ceviche is called leche de tigre, which means “tiger’s milk.” Peruvians aren’t kitty-cat shy about downing this milky-white concentrated tonic. When you’re out partying, recommended Mango’s Sandra Calvo, do as the natives do and toss back a shot of harsh pisco (Peru’s equivalent to Italian grappa) then chase it with leche de tigre; it’ll keep you roaring all night long.