An Ancient Mariner of Lima Who Can Read the Sea
The exact origins of ceviche are, to some extent, a matter of debate. Conventional wisdom says Peru, where the fresh, flavorful fish dish remains (especially in coastal regions) a point of national pride. And certainly a confluence of factors argues for Peru as the true home of ceviche: the acidity of Peruvian limes; the presence, more than a century old, of a sushi-oriented Japanese community; and the bounty of the Humbolt current, which introduces Antarctic waters to warmer seas along South America's Pacific Coast, resulting in a bounty of tasty marine life.
Some have argued that ceviche was first eaten in Ecuador, or Polynesia, or the Middle East. Yet as chef Douglas Rodriguez suggests, there is another way to approach its origin story. “The honors should logically go to a fisherman," he writes in The Great Ceviche Book, “who, having limes on board his boat…quickly tossed together the first ceviche." The limes he would have brought along to prevent scurvy, once a common affliction for those at sea. The fish, of course, he would have just hauled out of his nets. It doesn't get much fresher than that.
Ceviche, to the uninitiated, is raw fish marinated in lime juice. (The acidity of the citrus cures the flesh.) A few seasonings, such as salt, onion, and chilies, are added. It's a simple enough preparation, and not a problem if one's kitchen happens to be a bobbing wooden boat.
A Peruvian who catches flounder, bonito, and other ceviche fish for a living doesn't necessarily own his boat; if he does, he is known as a pescador-armador. He may operate it by himself, or employ a marinero to share the workload and keep loneliness at bay. Optimism is an important trait among such helpers, for a fishing excursion may require a night or more at sea, and a couple extra hours of casting nets could well mean the difference between a failed trip and a major haul.
Uncertainty is part of the profession. And yet to the veteran fisherman, the sea is more legible than it might seem. He might read it before the sun rises, from the cliff-top street in Lima known as the Malecón, to see how the waves are coming in. Watching the swells helps him decide how safe the water will be, and when and where the octopus and big fish will be feeding. If he observes seabirds hunting anchovies, he can infer that down below, sea bass are too.
This, essentially, is the routine that Fredy Guardia, a 75-year-old fisherman in Lima, has practiced for six decades. With his wife, Sonia, he owns what might be the best-loved cevicheria in Peru. Their sons and daughter mostly run it now; he has all but retired from the difficult (and dangerous) business of catching fish. His timing is not bad. The catches these days are smaller, thanks to the over-harvesting of the big commercial companies. Dwindling resources have in turn made small-boat fishermen more aggressive, and less willing to observe the old codes about respecting another's territory.
Meanwhile, in Peru's burgeoning foodie culture, chef-made ceviche is all the rage. The flavors are getting more nuanced—arguably, better. In none of Lima's best restaurants, though, can one experience ceviche in the manner known to the fisherman.