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What is Ceviche?

Ingredients, flavors, and cooking with acid.

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Ceviche

Ceviche

Photo by Danielito311 [flickr]

Ceviche is a seafood dish made with raw fish that has been marinated in citrus juices and other seasonings. This dish is popular in Africa, Central and South America, particularly along the coastal regions where fresh seafood is in abundance. Acidic citrus juices are utilized in the marinade to denature or "cook" the seafood without heat. Despite the acidic pH, ceviche is still susceptible to transmitting pathogenic organisms such as bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

What is in Ceviche?

Seafood is the main ingredient in ceviche with the specific type of fish varying depending on the region. Sea bass, shrimp, squid, halibut, and tuna are all very popular, but any fresh seafood that is available may be used. The seafood is then seasoned with fresh citrus juice, which not only ads flavor but also acidifies the mixture. Lime juice, lemon juice, and blood orange are popular citrus fruits used to make ceviche. In addition to the citrus juice, ceviche is often flavored with onions, chili peppers, salt, and sometimes fresh herbs such as cilantro or coriander.

A good ceviche is a delicate balance between sour, salty, and fatty. Too much acid and the fish will become tough and the tart flavor will be over powering. The fish often provides a fatty element that helps balance the sharply acidic citrus. A number of add-ins are popular with ceviche, including avocado or fried plantains, both of which also provide a smooth, fatty flavor. Some versions of ceviche include a rich tomatoey sauce, which ads an extra savory element. Fresh herbs like cilantro serve to brighten the dish with a fresh, green flavor.

Is Ceviche Cooked?

Ceviche is often referred to as "cooked" because of the way the acid denatures the protein, but technically heat is required for cooking. When the fish is exposed to the acidic marinade, the acids unravel (or denature) the proteins causing them to become opaque and slightly firm. This only occurs on the outside surface of the fish, leaving the inside soft and buttery like sushi. The seafood in ceviche is often cut into small pieces to maximize the surface area and increase contact with the marinade.

An acidic pH and denatured protein does not guarantee that bacteria, viruses, and parasites will be killed. For this reason, it is imperative that only high quality, clean, disease-free seafood be used to make ceviche. Some suggest using only pre-frozen seafood (-4 degrees Fahrenheit for at least seven days), which will kill most parasites. This way the seafood will still have the tender, raw texture, but will have a reduced likelihood of parasitic transmission.

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