If anyone understands the call of seviche in scorching weather, it’s the Peruvians, those hardy souls who have built one of Latin America’s more robust economies in a rugged, mountainous, coastal country located just south of the Equator. Peru’s love affair with seviche is believed to predate Spanish conquistadors, who brought not only disease and mayhem to the Inca Empire in the 16th century, but also the limes that Peruvians would use to “cook” their raw fish. Apparently the lime’s high acid content proved a better partner for raw fish than the native sour oranges and tumbo fruits favored in pre-Hispanic times.
All of that is, though, ancient history as Eddy Ancasi and Javier Angeles-Beron gather at the subterranean bar inside Las Canteras, Ancasi’s Peruvian restaurant in Adams Morgan. Both men are chefs and natives of Peru; Ancasi was born in Arequipa, the country’s second-largest city, while Angeles-Beron hails from Lima, the nation’s capital and largest metropolis with a population of more than 7.5 million.
The chefs share similar views on what constitutes a traditional Peruvian seviche — as opposed to one found in Ecuador, which has its own history and approach to the dish — and the first thing they agree upon is the amount of time the fish should spend in the citrus marinade. If you review some English-language cookbooks dedicated to Peruvian cuisine, they will regularly tell you to marinate the fish for an hour, sometimes far longer. These kinds of directions generate disapproving looks from Peruvians.
If you marinate the fish longer than 15 minutes, says Ancasi, it is “going to become very hard, chewy, almost like rubber. You don’t want that.”
Nor do you want to freeze the fish before slicing it or let the fish reach room temperature before serving it. What you want is fresh, raw, cold seafood — preferably a firm whitefish such as flounder, halibut or even the much-maligned tilapia — cut into rough, bite-size chunks. These chunks should, ideally, sit in their citrus bath for 10 or 15 seconds only, says Angeles-Beron, a catering chef for Bon Appetit Management and former executive chef for Latin Concepts, the Washington group behind such restaurant-lounges as Chi-Cha and Gua-Rapo.
“You cook the outside just to get the color changed by the citrus,” Angeles-Beron says. Peruvian seviche, he adds, is “the art of eating raw fish that, with the right texture, doesn’t make you think you’re eating raw food.”