Vallejo Nocturno 2014 - Miraflores Coast
A few years ago Peru's leading talk radio station, Radio Programas del Perú, twice organised a competition to find the best cebicheria in the country. They had to drop it after the jury was overwhelmed by more than 500 entries. Now, cebiche is taking off around the world. It appears on menus not just at glamorous spots such as London's Nobu or New York's Le Bernardin but at countless restaurants offering vaguely Latin cooking. Britain's first cebiche bar has opened at the Club Bar & Dining in Soho, and Gaucho, the midmarket chain specialising in Argentinian beef, has gone from offering one type of cebiche to six.
But it is in Peru that you find the real thing, so my wife and I went back to Lima, her home town, in search of the perfect cebiche. The cold Humboldt current that flows north from Antarctica turns Peru's coast into a desert and brings a sea mist, but it also contains the world's richest fishing grounds. As well as the national dish, cebiche is the icon of a sophisticated cuisine. At its simplest and best, it is a mouth-tingling combination of raw seafood cured in lemon juice and garnished with hot pepper and onion. (Some say it arose because the fishermen, out all day, got hungry and didn't have any other way of cooking.) It is a sensory blast of orgasmic intensity, powerful enough to blow away a hangover but light and refreshing enough to see off afternoon drowsiness.
Though there is much more to Peruvian cooking, cebiche retains pride of place. "It's begun to become a universal dish on which everyone puts their own stamp," says Raúl Vargas, director of Radio Programas and organiser of the oversubscribed competition. I asked him to talk me through it. "Five ingredients are the essence of cebiche," he said. The fish doesn't have to be expensive, just absolutely fresh and firm. Many Peruvian restaurants offer cebiches of several fish and shellfish. To this is added purple onion, finely cut in long thin curves--not more than one part to four parts of fish. Then comes the hot pepper. Peru may not have as many varieties as Mexico, but it has a fine and subtle range. For cebiche, a stubby scarlet pepper called ají limo is used, spicier than the more common ají amarillo, or yellow pepper, but not as hot as the fiery rocoto. The fourth ingredient is lemon juice, or rather that of the Peruvian limón or key lime--intensely acidic, but with a hint of sweetness. The last ingredient is a generous pinch of salt.
When I ask him to recommend a cebicheria, we are soon in his car. We drive a short distance to Lince, a lower-middle-class neighbourhood halfway between Lima's colonial centre and the prosperous oceanside suburb of Miraflores. Lince's market is typical of Lima: a covered warren of stalls occupying a whole block. In one corner, a dozen fish vendors line up elbow to elbow behind a 25-metre white tiled slab, piled high with corvina (a plump Pacific bass), mero (grouper), giant squid, abundant scallops, juicy mussels and sea snails. In the corner, while her brother sells fish, Señora América Zegarra, a short middle-aged woman with twinkling light-brown eyes, greets Vargas warmly, and sets to work. She takes a bonito, a kind of small tuna, cuts its pale purple flesh into small chunks and dunks them in the lemon juice. In a few minutes the juice has turned milky, and the cebiche is ready, served in an enamel bowl. It is delicious, and at six soles (£1) it is an absolute bargain. While posher restaurants generally use corvina for cebiche, Sra América insists that the oilier bonito is tastier (as well as cheaper), and it is hard to disagree.
Next day I met Mirko Lauer, a friend who is a journalist, poet and foodie. With his daughter Vera, Lauer wrote a book on Peruvian food ("La Revolución Gastronómica Peruana", 2006). They studied how cebiche recipes have evolved over the decades. The marinating time has steadily fallen. Time was when limeñas would prepare cebiche first thing, giving it several hours to marinade. Only 20 years ago, 15-20 minutes was the norm; now a minute or so is common. At La Fiesta, the restaurant in Miraflores where we are talking, the waiter marinates the fish at the table.
Vallejo Nocturno 2014 -San Isidro Stores