Not so fishy

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The Latin American ceviche, ‘cooked’ in a salt-slaked citrus bath, can be quite an adventure for you and your guests

It’s not cold enough for heavy-duty smoking or roasting yet, but these early days of winter are perfect for ceviche — that wonderful Latin American creation where fish is ‘cooked’ in a salt-slaked citrus bath and tossed with onions, peppers and fresh herbs. Of course, ceviche is prepared all year round in countries like Mexico, Ecuador and Peru, where it’s the unofficial national dish. But I prefer to wait for the cooler months in Kolkata, when the fish — from fishmonger to fridge — is at its freshest.

Despite the growing popularity of sushi and sashimi in India, the idea of eating raw fish is still unpalatable to many. Others are wary of the cold chain and possible contamination, even when they live in cities close to the coast or a river. Unlike the Japanese delicacies, however, the fish in ceviche isn’t raw at all — the citric acids in lime denature or break down the proteins, much like heat. Having said that, for a dish that depends solely on its main ingredient, one can’t make ceviche if the fish is not fresh and firm enough to withstand the acids — absorbing the scents of lime, yet holding its shape and character.

I was introduced to the dish by my mother-in-law, who first tasted it at the home of a Mexican friend working with the American Mission in Calcutta in the late ’60s. Soon, her finger food repertoire included papyrus-thin slices of bekti steeped overnight in lime juice, vinegar and brandy. Rolled up and held together by a toothpick, my mother-in-law’s ceviche gave Calcutta’s cocktail circuit a taste of adventure, one that left the devilled eggs and angels on horseback behind by a mile. Unlike her Mexican friend, who served it with diced peppers, tomatoes and fresh dill, she used whole peppercorns and dill fronds.

I stuck to her version for years, until I met Brooklyn-based food entrepreneur Nidhi Jalan, whose Masala Mama line of organic Indian spice kits is making inroads into American kitchens. Jalan uses a variety of white fish, but her favourites are prawns and scallops. She believes as long as you have a reliable fishmonger who supplies fresh, properly cleaned, top-quality fish — not a tall order in India — making ceviche is a toddle. Jalan marinates the fish for 20 minutes tops: this gives the citric acid enough time to do its thing without turning the fish into something unrecognisable. However, if you’re still worried about serving ‘raw’ seafood, she says ‘cook’ the prawns a little longer, for another 10 minutes or so.

Armed with new knowledge, I’ve dived into the varied waters of ceviche-making again. Plump, fat prawns make for divine ceviche; red snapper and tilapia do well too. But my usual choice is a local freshwater fish in Kolkata called pangash — something I’d tasted years ago in Bangladesh, now readily available at the neighbourhood market as Bengal basa. It’s a large, firm-fleshed, almost boneless fish, whose meaty texture and neutral flavour make it ideal for ceviche.

Typically, I get the fish sliced (medium thick) for grilling because filleting can render the pieces too thin. Then I stash the fish in the freezer, taking it out a few hours before preparing the dish, so it’s all but totally defrosted, retaining a hint of iciness; this makes for easy dicing. By the time I finish the knife work, the defrosting is complete and uniform. While some chefs recommend cutting the fish into large cubes, I prefer smaller pieces, since they ‘cook’ evenly. Once diced, the fish needs a good rub of salt (preferably, sea salt) before being immersed in a citrus cocktail. Lime juice is the foundation, of course, but its acid hit needs to be tempered. Jalan recommends grapefruit or orange juice, a drop of honey and a tiny bit of olive oil. Also, I like my ceviche with chutzpah, so fragrant heat is a must — the little red dhani jolokia of Assam, the round red dalley khorsani from Kalimpong, even a tiny portion of the dreaded bhut jolokia (Naga chilli, which must be handled wearing gloves) are great.

While the cling-wrapped dish sits in the fridge, I slice onions, spritzing them with lime juice to dull the raw edge, and chop tomatoes and capsicum about the same size as the fish. I like adding some chopped coriander too. You can use dill and mint, but avoid parsley — it’s too boisterous for such a subtle ensemble.

By now, the fish is ready: the acid bath has cooked the flesh, turning it opaque and flaky. If I use any of the more lethal chillies, I discard the fiery red shards, knowing that their scent will linger. Then I transfer the cubes into a bowl, add some of the marinade (not all of it at this stage), the veggies, and toss lightly. A quick taste test to check if it needs more marinade, and it’s ready to serve. Incidentally, in Peru, this leftover marinade is called Tiger Milk and prescribed as a cure for hangovers!

Using this basic approach, you can play around with ingredients and flavours. Right now there’s an abundance of pomelo in my garden, for instance, and I love tossing in its pink sweet-sour segments. Avocados are an excellent companion too. Or you could experiment with Asian accents — using rice wine vinegar, a little Mirin, lemon juice and chilli flakes to marinate your fish. A friend who just got back from China gifted us some Szechwan pepper, and a light dusting of these rough-ground kernels was the perfect sign-off for the Asian-style prawn ceviche I served as a starter recently — plated up on sushi rice cakes with a green tangle of sesame-flecked, crispy-fried Nori (seaweed) ribbons on the side. So find your own flavours and get ‘cooking’.

(Arundhati Ray is a Kolkata-based writer)

Published on November 28, 2014

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