By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
It is a battle that has been brewing between fishmongers and seafood connoisseurs across Latin America from time immortal (okay, well, at least since somebody came up with the idea to douse raw fish with citrus juice and call it a delicacy).
But the point is that if you ask a Mexican where ceviche originated, they will proudly tell you in Acapulco. Ask the same question to a Peruvian, and you will be told in no uncertain terms that it is a traditional Pacific dish that got its start with the early Inca some 2,000 years ago, or that it may be an iteration of a dish brought to Peru from Granada by colonial Moorish women in the days of the conquistador.
The truth about ceviche’s origins may never be fully revealed, but whatever team you personally root for — the Acapulco Amphibian Aficionados or the Peruvian Pisco Piscaries — ceviche is a favorite among Latin American foodies from Baja to Cape Horn. For Gustavo Montestruque, the head chef at the traditional Peruvian seafood restaurant Yakumanka in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma, the ceviche provenance debate is a moot issue. “People can argue it all they want, but what I produce is Peruvian ceviche, and for me, personally, that is the better of the two,” he told Pulse News Mexico last week during a hands-on seminar on how to create the ambrosian appetizer.
Rather than worry about ceviche’s origins, Montestruque, a native of Peru who settled in Mexico several years ago, said that it is important to prepare whatever version of the dish as faithfully as possible to its original recipe, while still adjusting to personal tastes and preferences.
The ceviche seminar, which is offered about once a month at Yakumanka for a nominal fee, started off with a quick course on how to make a proper pisco sour, the signature Peruvian cocktail that is the perfect accompaniment to any ceviche (or pretty much any other Latin American dish, for that matter).
A classic blend of pisco (a heady, grape-based spirit that definitely is from Peru), lime juice, whipped egg whites, syrup and a touch of Angostura bitters, all vigorously shaken (not stirred) to create a frothy aperitif, the Pisco Sour, Montestruque was the brainchild of American bartender Victor Vaughen Morris, who settled in Peru in 1903 and opened his a bar in Lima, where he concocted the potent cocktail in 1920. (Then again, that too could be an urban legend, but with a tangy triple pisco sour to start the class, no one was really too argumentative over Montestruque’s colorful account of its origin.)
So with that, the actual cooking class began.
The secret to a great Peruvian ceviche — which is generally slightly sweeter and less acidic than its Mexican counterpart — is the leche de tigre (tiger milk) broth that is used as a base.
So what is leche de tigre, and why is it called tiger milk if there are no tigers in Peru, except perhaps in zoos?
Again, Montestruque had an answer: “Leche de tigre is so hot that it will make you roar,” he said jokingly, before moving on to explaining the process to making a quality tiger milk. Also, he added, many Peruvians are convinced that it has aphrodisiac qualities (and will no doubt make your partner roar) and is the perfect cure for a hangover.
The ingredients for this guaranteed-to-clean-out-your-sinuses puree varies from region to region in Peru, as well as from chef to chef.
But as a rule, leche de tigre is a harmonious mix of chopped celery, purple onions, white onions, garlic, ginger, lime juice, raw white fish, fresh coriander, salt and a not-too-conservative dash of habanero chili, all blended together with a bit of ice into a liquid elixir.
During the class, Montestruque whipped together a piquantly aromatic leche de tigre and distributed a generous portion to each table to be added, along with the other essential ingredients, already on the tables, to the individual Peruvian ceviche preparations.
Those ingredients included raw, thickly sliced white fish (pretty much any non-oily white fish will do, he said) to be chopped into large cubes, ground garlic, white pepper, chopped coriander, chopped onion, lime juice, more habanero chili and that all-important leche de tigre.
Starting with the dry ingredients, Montestruque instructed his wannabe chefs to mix the ingredients and then quickly arrange the ceviche (Peruvian ceviche spends much less time in the lime juice than Mexican ceviche, which is why it is less tart) on a plate of lettuce adorned with cooked yam and strips of corn kernels, and to top it all off with a sprinkling of chopped coriander and — you guessed it — more habanero chili slices.
Although my ulcer-in-the-making might disagree, the finished product was delicious.
Of course, those who are faint of stomach might want to tone down the amount of chili used, and, of course, if you want to savor a truly authentic Peruvian ceviche, you can always opt to get it made-to-order at Yakumanka, located at Guanajuato 138 in Colonia Roma.
Open daily from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m. (except on Sunday, when it closes at 7 p.m.), Yakumanka also has a tasty selection of other Peruvian specialties, including ají de gallina (shredded chicken breast and potatoes in a zesty egg and cream sauce), pasta achupada (spaghetti and shrimp in a fiery fava sauce) and tacu tacu (shredded beef with Creole-flavored white beans and rice).