"This isn't quite what I imagined," my friend Jenna said as we looked at the dish that had been set before us. In tall glasses lined with iceberg lettuce were bits of sea creatures, including baby octopuses.
We were in Bocas del Toro, Panama. On a whim we had fled the oncoming chill of winter, seeking sun and surf. After a 24-hour journey, we had checked into a youth hostel, settled into hammocks in the open-air lounge, and listened to the rain pound on the tin roof. Relentlessly.
Bocas del Toro sits on the edge of the rain forest in the Caribbean. Surfers love this place because it is more off the beaten path than neighboring Costa Rica. But the surf that crashed over craggy rocks looked intimidating to beginners like us. And now our night on the town was threatening to be a disappointment with the arrival of this dish called ceviche.
I had been eager to try ceviche that "cooks" raw saltwater fish in citrus juice. Jenna had described the flavor as "delicate" and "ohmygosh, yum." I wondered if I was missing something as I chewed on a rubbery, miniature tentacle.
Back at the youth hostel we regrouped. Surfing had suddenly been replaced by the need for sun.
Two young men recently out of the Israeli army and sitting on the next bunk over showed us pictures of a recent trip on their digital cameras. We saw crystalline waters, blue skies, and palm trees of the San Blas Islands. "That was my favorite hammock," said one, pointing to a low-slung swath of striped cloth hanging next to a thatched hut. "All you will need is one change of clothes, a swimsuit, and a book." Done. The next day we flew back to Panama City.
Upon arrival, we secured our travel arrangements to the islands for the following morning, and headed out for dinner. In a nearby European-style plaza was a restaurant that featured ceviche on its menu – lots of it.
"I think this might be like the one I had in Costa Rica last year," Jenna mused, hoping to find the taste she had been searching for. I chose the Panama ceviche on the theory that local is always best. In this case, it was. "That is it!" Jenna said, pointing her fork at my plate. I gave her half, and our worries melted away.
Ceviche, it turns out, is a popular local dish across Central and South America, each region adding its own flavors. But no matter if the ceviche is "from" Peru, Panama, or Costa Rica, they all have similar elements: raw seafood marinated in lime or lemon juice until it is opaque, salt, something sweet (tomato, mango, pineapple), something hot (peppers, chili, hot sauce), and something to soothe the tongue (cilantro or parsley).
When humid summer days finally hit New England, I knew it was the perfect time to make this simple dish that requires no heat to cook. My neighbor Anna is from Guatemala. I knocked on her door and asked if she knew of a good recipe. "This," she declared waving a piece of paper, "is the base of all ceviche recipes."
I invited Jenna over for dinner. She dipped her spoon into her glass dish and said, "This is awesome."
Serves 4 as an appetizer, 2 as a main dish.
1 lb. white saltwater fish, cubed
1 cup lime juice, freshly squeezed
(10 to 12 limes)
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup Roma tomatoes, chopped
1/2 cup red onion, finely diced
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, finely diced
Hot sauce to taste
In a glass bowl or dish combine fish, lime juice, and salt. Make sure the fish is fully submerged in the lime juice. Refrigerate covered, and allow fish to marinate for at least 8 hours, stirring occasionally. Before serving, add the tomatoes, onion, and cilantro and let sit for an additional 30 minutes. Dish out with a slotted spoon. Serve with hot sauce and crackers. You can put a dab of mayonnaise on the cracker, too.