I am convinced that my grandmother has healing powers. Mamá Dora, my petite five-foot-tall, white haired and freckled grandmother, has the antidote to nearly every ailment. Within my family, we refer to her powers as brujería, which translates to witchcraft, because some of her cures and concoctions defy the staunch American medicinal traditions we’ve been coddled by. For instance, if I complained about an earache, my grandmother would roll up a newspaper, carefully lodge it in my ear, light a match, and my pain would vanish. She was well aware of the cupping method decades before athletes co-opted it, and knows how to “properly” do so without leaving bruises. She even dispels evil spirits and energies from our home with a mere white egg and her secretive whispers. However, her cooking has proved to be the most magical remedy of all her tricks and cures. Her recipes are like potions, undoubtedly guaranteed to heal and cure the most aching hunger to the most painful heartbreak.
I’ve watched in quiet admiration as Mamá Dora has treated and fed every cousin, uncle, aunt, and everyone in between. One of her specialties is ceviche, a dish made of fresh raw fish cured in lime juice, thickly chopped onions, and bits of spicy yellow ají. Mamá Dora’s ceviche is the perfect remedy for the type of sadness that induces hunger, the answer to every exasperated “I miss home.” Ceviche has cured my hunger and homesickness more times that I can remember. It has saved my mother from the anxiety of coming home empty-handed, and is the neutralizer that keeps our family gatherings tolerable. Instead of receiving a pale and tasteless chicken noodle soup when we’re sick, we receive a spicy bowl of ceviche. Mamá Dora’s potent ceviche has cured us all, and it is only made from a few ingredients. All she needs is one white fish, an onion, some limes, and cilantro to make a fulfilling meal, like an alchemist turning common metals into gold.
The origins of ceviche are hazy and often argued about. Most people agree that it was founded in Latin America, but Peruvians like myself believe the legend that ceviche was created when an Incan emperor demanded fresh fish, but could not travel the distance to retrieve the fish. When it was discovered that lime juice would keep the fish as fresh as possible when traveling from the sea to the top of the mountains, an important part of Peru’s national heritage was born. I imagine a chasquis, a professional Incan runner, balancing a carefully constructed bowl of raw fish and lime juice while dashing back to Cusco. Ceviche’s legacy has been passed down from the hands of Incan royalty to my grandmother’s compact and sun-spotted hands, marked by decades of sitting under the sun, slicing avocados, raising every child in the family, and cooking more than fifty years’ worth of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.
My grandmother must have perfected this recipe more so out of convenience rather than tradition. My grandfather, Papá Lucho, was a fisherman who had access to the finest fresh fish on a daily basis in Peru’s chief seaport, Callao. My mother often reminds me of how hard life was back then. Even though Mamá Dora is a skilled cook and healer, she lacked the education to secure a steady job amidst the rocky political climate. Surviving off a fisherman’s wages was not easy. After an earthquake destroyed their town, they were forced to uproot and move to a safer neighborhood. My mother still dwells on all of her precious childhood mementos that she was forced to leave behind, but notes that this relocation brought her a better life. Although they spent most of their time at school or on the beach, their city was still unsafe. They were forced to live by citywide curfew in order to protect them from criminals that lurked around during the night. They persevered, and even grew stronger from all that they endured. Mamá Dora was able to make her meals a constant in their unpredictable lives. They could always count on ceviche to fulfill their hunger, and I believe this is what makes Mamá Dora’s ceviche so strong and so good.
My mouth waters when I think of the ceviche Mamá Dora must have concocted, using only the best fish from the oceans of Peru, and freshly picked cilantro that my mother purchased at the local market. Although my mother never specifically speaks about eating ceviche in Peru when she was my age, I have the most vivid vision of what this scene would look like. I see Mamá Dora, short but sturdy, slicing onions but not crying because she is immune to the smell. I see my grandfather, standing tall and dancing to the Beethoven he still plays in his senile state today. I see my mother with the same unruly hair and petite features that I have now inherited. She is squeezing limes next to her two statuesque brothers. They are all tan from days spent at the beach. They tower over my grandmother, helping to cook what is now my favorite meal.
Although my siblings and I don’t get to see our grandmother as often as we would like, a few hours is enough to indulge our cravings for a good meal. Our stays include my grandfather wagging his finger to the sky to the tune of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” my mother whispering secrets to my grandmother while she steams sweet potatoes, and an occasional guest who heard Mamá Dora was cooking. Cousins and uncles that I haven’t seen in months will suddenly appear at the door when she is cooking. Mamá Dora always welcomes them in with a hug and a plate. Ceviche not only has the power to convince me to eat raw fish, but also to teleport relatives from all parts of New York to the very end of Long Island.
One warm spring afternoon a handful of years ago, Mamá Dora decided that ceviche would be the first meal we learned to properly cook. She placed a single piece of white fish onto a wooden cutting board in front of my sister and ordered her to chop it into small chunks. I was on cilantro duty, washing each sprig and plucking only the “good leaves” off of the stem (the bigger leaves without spots). This assignment proved that I was not trusted with a large knife. After Mamá Dora noticed that the pieces of fish were too big, and that I had placed too much cilantro into the bowl, she laughed at our pathetic attempts. I wondered how a dish with so few ingredients could be so complicated. Although Mamá Dora wanted to help us perfect our ceviche-making skills, my mother hurriedly took over, exclaiming that we didn’t have enough time to learn how to make ceviche.
Just as champagne is best served in a flute washed in hot water, ceviche is best served on a flat and wide bowl. It is best displayed to show off the bright orange flecks of ají, the pale white raw fish, and the scattered leaves of dark green cilantro. My mother likes to add her own flair to her ceviche, placing slices of cooked sweet potatoes around the rim of her special ceviche plate, which perfectly absorb the lime juice and add a shocking taste to the plain sweet potato.
Ceviche is the perfect meal to eat on a hot summer day. The lime juice, cold and refreshing, is guaranteed to cool you down while the spiciness of the raw onions and ají will surely wake you up. My summer weekends are filled with family gatherings in my grandmother’s tiny and un-air conditioned apartment, but none of us complain because we are eating ceviche. My Tío James sits on a stool smiling, telling my siblings and me that ceviche is good for your lungs and improves your circulation. My grandfather grins without teeth, still wagging his finger to the sky. I reach for seconds and thirds, savoring my grandmother’s meal while it lasts.
If you are truly feeling down, Mamá Dora prescribes a spoonful of Leche del Tigre, or Tiger’s Milk, the juice that remains at the bottom of the ceviche bowl. Best consumed with your largest metal spoon, the juice is fiery and has collected all the cilantro leaves that have been marinating under the fish. If you are feeling brave, drink straight from the bowl. Beware the splashes that can feel like a cold splatter of salty seawater on a sunburn. One spoonful is all you need to quench your desire for flavor. First you will feel the zesty juice tickle your lips, urging you to drink more. Tears may spring to your eyes if you are unaccustomed to this kind of spice. Then you will feel a cool and invigorating splash on your tongue, quelling the itchiness on your lips. Drink until you feel it in the pit of your stomach, filling you with the strength of a tiger.
About 4 servings
- 1 1/2 pounds of fish fillets (basa, swai, tilapia or flounder) diced into 1 inch pieces
- 1 red onion, thinly sliced
- 2 ají amarillos, veins and seeds removed (if you like it spicy do not remove the veins or seeds)
- 1/2 cup of freshly squeezed lime juice
- 2 teaspoons of chopped fresh cilantro leaves
- Salt to taste
- 2 sweet potatoes, boiled, peeled and cut 1/4 inch thick
- 2 ears of corn, boiled and cut in half
1 Rinse the fish in cold water, drain well and salt to taste. Soak the sliced onion in room temperature water for 5 minutes, drain well and set aside.
2 Meanwhile, place the lime juice, ají amarillo and one piece of fish in a blender until smooth. Place fish in a bowl and pour in the mixture, mixing well. Stir in the chopped cilantro. Let it marinate for 10 minutes.
3 When ready to serve, arrange slices of sweet potato and ceviche, and top it with the onions and cilantro.
Note: Ají amarillo can be found frozen or canned in most Latin American supermarkets. Mama Dora’s choice is frozen