Back in my wild and youthful restaurant days, I worked at a place that was something of a free for all of Mexican street foods. There were plenty of tacos and tamales to go around, as well as the obligatory tableside guacamole. But if you asked me, the real draw there was the made-to-order ceviches. In contrast to the spice-laden moles or slow-cooked barbacoa, they quietly made the case that stark freshness, in some cases, can be a thousand times more poetic than a bunch of heavy-handed kitchen cookery.
The only problem with the ceviches was that inevitably—I mean at least once a night—a table would order one, only to erupt with a with confusion as the plate arrived. “Wait, ceviche is raw fish?” they’d exclaim. “I don’t do raw fish.” And back to the kitchen it would go.
If I was feeling especially feisty, I’d counter that ceviche isn’t exactly raw. It might not be set over a blazing fire, but it does go through an acidic marinade that transforms the flesh much in the same way that heat does. My guests usually didn’t appreciate my snark and would ask to speak to a manager right after that.
That fine point of cooking semantics may have been my downfall then, but it’s now one that I celebrate. Because there is a certain beauty to a piece of fish or seafood that has all the oceanic qualities of sushi or crudo, yet the silky, firm texture of an expertly cooked fresh catch. It’s a magical beauty worth replicating at home.
Once you’ve got a grasp on a few essentials, ceviche is one of the simplest dishes you could make. It also ranks pretty high up there on the “wow” factor. To start, you’ll need extremely fresh fish or seafood—since both spoil at a pretty fast rate, even in cold temperatures, this is key. Not just for the sake of taste, but safety, too. Barring your own straight-from-the-waters catch, go for stuff from a trusted source that keeps their product well iced and/or refrigerated. As a general rule, the flesh should be firm and somewhat translucent, lacking any distinct smell other than a bit of ocean.
If you’ve got a big chunk of fish, you’ll need to think about how you want to cut it. Some fish, especially firmer-fleshed species like tuna, can be diced into small cubes. If you’ve got a more delicate white fish, however, try slicing it into thin, sashimi-style pieces. You don’t want to go paper-thin, however, or your ceviche will “cook” pretty quickly. Somewhere in the ballpark of a quarter of an inch should do just fine.
Pretty much all ceviche recipes call for an acidic marinade (typically, some sort of citrus juice, although vinegar is common as well). It’s the acid that unravels the flesh’s proteins—these “denuded” strands feel the need to cover up, so they shield each other by bonding together, creating a tighter and more opaque outer surface. The amount of time that your ceviche will need to spend marinating depends on what type of fish or seafood you’re dealing with (this can be anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours). Generally, what you’re going for, though, are pieces that have lost their translucency on the surface and firmed up a bit, but still have a hint of rawness in the center. They shouldn’t be stiff, chalky, or flaking apart: these are all signs that your ceviche has drifted off into well-done territory (see, even ceviche can be overcooked, just like meat!).
You could ostensibly use any sort of fish or seafood for ceviche, although it’s generally recommended that you steer clear of certain oily fish like bluefish or freshwater species like catfish and trout because of their increased risk of spoilage and parasites. For further inspiration, check out the nine ceviche recipes below.
1. Ceviche Tostadas
This traditional Veracruz-style ceviche mixes mild snapper and scallop with slices of green olive, which punctuate the dish with hints of brininess. Get our Ceviche Tostadas recipe.
2. Shrimp Ceviche
These shrimp are poached ever so briefly before soaking in a mixture of lemon and lime juices. Their plump texture is complemented by the addition of crisp cucumber and tender avocado. Get our Shrimp Ceviche recipe.
3. Green Halibut Ceviche
How green is this ceviche? Between the tomatillo, avocado, jalapeño, lime, olive, and cilantro, pretty green, I’d say. Get our Green Halibut Ceviche recipe.
4. Halibut Ceviche with Watermelon
If you prefer your primary colors, however, this summery watermelon and tomato ceviche will have you seeing red. Get our Halibut Ceviche with Watermelon recipe.
5. Spicy Sriracha Ceviche
You don’t have to limit yourself to one type of seafood per ceviche—mix it up! This spicy, sriracha-accented recipe can be made with scallops, tilapia, or whatever your freshest catch of the day is. Get our Spicy Sriracha Ceviche recipe.
6. Curried Calamari Ceviche with Mango and Avocado
A little bit spicy and a whole lot of fruity, squid ceviche takes nicely to the sweet flavors of mango and grapefruit as well as the fragrant lift of curry powder. Get our Curried Calamari Ceviche with Mango and Avocado recipe.
7. Tuna, Pomegranate & Pineapple Ceviche
Part ceviche, part salad, this recipe gives equal billing to the produce and the fish. Loaded with sweet pineapple and pomegranate, as well as crisp cucumber and radish, each element proves that it’s more than a supporting player to the chunks of tuna. Get the recipe here.
8. Sea Bass and Tomato Ceviche
Dressed with “leche de tigre,” a fiery ginger-habañero puree, this ceviche packs a wallop. Even if it doesn’t actually contain tiger’s milk, it will have you summoning your inner feline strength as those hot pangs hit the back of your throat. Get the recipe here.
9. Yellowtail Ceviche
Given its basic commonalities with sushi and sashimi, it’s no surprise that ceviche takes well to Japanese flavors. Here, yellowtail is bathed in yuzu, rice vinegar, and soy sauce, for a trans-Pacific composition. Get the recipe here.
Miki Kawasaki is a New York City–based food writer and graduate of Boston University's program in Gastronomy. Few things excite her more than a well-crafted sandwich or expertly spiced curry. If you ever run into her at a dinner party, make sure to hit her up for a few pieces of oddball culinary trivia.