Three little fingers appeared on the edge of the counter, followed by a pink-lipped shy smile and a head of shiny dark hair. A slight girl of eight or nine took my order while her dad stirred a battered silver pot of lime juice, diced onions and peppers, cilantro, and raw fish. I eyed the plastic bottles of mayo, ketchup, and homemade chili sauce in a reused ketchup bottle, while she counted back my change in colones. On the counter, level with my shoulders, she landed three plastic spoons, three packages of Soda galletas, and three red, paper Coca Cola cups of ceviche.
In Costa Rica, most eating establishments – from roadside stands to “shmancy” resort restaurants on the beach – offer ceviche (pronounced she-VEE-chay). What better snack than raw fish in zesty, salty juice served with something crunchy in the 90 degree heat?
The preparation and quality differ vastly from eatery to eatery. At the ubiquitous Sodas (comparable to U.S. diners) the appetizer was served with soda crackers and a spoon. You get about a cupful for $3-$5. At Soda Tico, (A colloquial term for a Costa Rican native).
A cat’s tail brushed my calves as I chewed the rubbery fish. I swatted a fly from the deceivingly delicate glass cup and snagged a nacho from the pile on my dad’s plate, wondering how long the fish had been ‘cooking’ in the lime marinade.
In making ceviche, no heat is used, but the fish isn’t exactly raw. The citric acid in the lime juice, with a pH around 2, denatures the protein in the fish, changing both the appearance and texture. In the denaturing process, the acid breaks bonds between the proteins, unraveling its ‘native’ form. This causes a sort of coagulation; the proteins form new bonds pushing out water and increasing the toughness, according to Claire Lower, chemist at Render Food Magazine. In 30 minutes, depending on the type of fish used, pink and fleshy becomes opaque and firm. The method dates back to Incan fisherman who developed this way to ‘cook’ the fish right on their boats.
I was told to go to Kai Sushi, near the surfer’s beach in Nosara, for the ceviche, not the sushi. In artful capitals, the chalkboard menu offered ceviche camaron (shrimp), ceviche pescado (fish, specified as sea bass), and ceviche con ajillo (with garlic), mango, and passion fruit. To keep my comparison consistent, I went for the ceviche pescado. The fish was delicate and the marinade had a balanced richness, like a splash of coconut milk had been added. It was delicious atop the thick triangles of house-made, fried corn tortillas.
Ceviche is thought to have originated in Peru, where it is traditionally eaten with a mix of sweet potatoes and corn to balance the heat of the chilies. The recipe has spread to various parts of South America, Mexico and the Caribbean, picking up regional variations along the way. In Ecuador, ceviche is often made with shrimp and zesty tomato sauce. It’s served with toasted chulpe corn – similar to corn nuts – called cancha. It can be made with a plethora of different seafood; Mahi Mahi, snapper, tilapia, halibut, scallops, squid, octopus, or even conch meat.
I had dinner at a Tico’s house and asked my host how she makes the appetizer. Maria uses the juice of mandarin limes to ‘cook’ the cubed Mahi Mahi. After thirty minutes, mas o menos, she adds chopped cilantro, onion, sweet pepper, salt, and just a little bit of ginger ale for sweetness. (She also adds ‘glutamate’ – “what the Chinese use” – or MSG for extra flavor if she has it). She serves it with smashed fried plantains.
Maria’s partner Mario told me I had to try the best ceviche in Playa del Coco served from a tiny stand beside a fading green sign. Maria’s eyes widened in agreement. “Muy Rico,” she said, throwing her arm up and flicking her fingers like she had burned them on a hot pan. Mario, gave me detailed directions in Spanish, telling me to look for the big trees with ‘ceviche’ spray painted in white down the trunks.
We ended up getting ceviche together the next day and it was exceptional. I asked what kind of fish and the niña at the tiny shop asked her dad.
“Loro!” he shouted. “Entiendo?” Mario looked at me. I shrugged, “En Ingles?” The gruff, graying man let go of the pot to throw up his hands in exasperation. (Later, we ran into Maria’s friend Flaco, a diving instructor at one of the local companies. He remembered that Loro is Parrotfish.)
Mario loaded his with a squirt from each of the bottles and I went for the hot sauce. Paper cups in hand, we headed down to the ocean to enjoy our snack and watch the fisherman return to the Playa Del Coco bay.