Limeños treat ceviche – the country’s national dish – with a reverence approaching the religious. An assemblage of fresh seafood cured in lime juice, herbs and the pale orange Andean chilli pepper the locals call ají, ceviche is classically served with corn on the cob and sweet potato. Although we can’t be certain on its origins, some people believe it to be an adaption of a centuries-old dish of the Moche people, then influenced by Spanish conquerors and by recipes from Moorish women from Granada who accompanied them, ceviche has a long history. However, until the mid- twentieth century and the advent of mains-run refrigeration, it was a strictly lunchtime affair, with cevicherias opening in the few hours after the boats docked with their daily catch.
Today, it’s a democratic, day-long indulgence, with elderly Limeños queuing at market hawker stands for the simplest of its incarnations – flounder with a squeeze of lime and a few feather-cut red onions – and young sophisticates Sunday brunching through their hangovers on tiradito, a Japanese-inflected dish (similar to sashimi) consisting of thin slices of fish bathed in a sauce.
These days ceviche arrives in myriad forms: from clásico to mixto (with fish, squid, octopus and scallops), camarón (with shrimp), concha negra (black conch) – said to increase your sexual prowess – and champiñones (with mushrooms). But you won’t want to miss the experien ce of an old-fashioned cevichería, where service is brisk, soap operas babble on the TV and portion s will leave you sated ’til supper. Diehard ceviche eaters kick-off their meal with a shot of leche de tigre, or tiger’s milk. Made from the tangy run-off of the ceviche marinade, it sorts the hombres from the neophytes.
In 2013 this ceviche street cart with outdoor seating was the star of Peruvian culinary talent show Ceviche con Sentimiento, or, Ceviche With Feeling. Today, as the beaming posters of owner Marcos Medrano attest, this cevicheria interprets the show’s title as an injunction. “Bam Bam and his black oysters,” a nod to the rambunctious Flintstones toddler, is the nickname for the sprightly 50-something Medrano, who presides over the daily production of piled -high plates of the house special, ferrous oyster ceviche and mixtos ceviche (good for two to share) with glistening tumbles of lightly cured seafood, salty and brightly acidic from the lime, accompanied by corn, beans, sweet potato and seaweed. The ceviche seasoning is quite spicy, so if you’re delicate of palate ask for your dish “menos picante”. Much of the joy of this joint, which occupies a street corner behind the Surquillo Market, is its atmosphere: at lunchtime a largely local crowd of office workers jostle elbow to elbow on shared wooden trestle tables while, later in the afternoon, older Limeños queue smilingly, nostalgic for a taste of the ceviche of their childhood.
El Ceviche de Ronald is a paean to fishy simplicity, serving pared back ceviche to a patient, 50-metre- long queue from late morning to late afternoon. Also a star of Ceviche Con Sentimiento, owner Ronald doesn’t vaunt his new-found celebrity; instead keeping proceedings at his original kiosk restaurant as they have been for a decade: join the queue, choose the one available dish (ceviche and crispy chicharrón fish skins served with corn beer or pisco and ginger), pay, scrum for one of the 20 or so plastic seats and wait for your order to arrive, so fresh the fish shimmers in Lima’s bright equatorial light. El Ceviche de Ronald’s success has spawned a second two-floor operation around the corner on Pedro Conde, which also serves hot dishes such as arroz con mariscos (fried rice with seafood). But for an authentic experience, it’s the beloved original on Ignacio Merino you want. Here, the chaos of ceviche addicts competing for seats or, horror, for the ceviche before it runs out (as it does on the busiest days by 2pm), is all part of the fun. Missed out on a seat and struggling to eat your ceviche standing up? The Chinese restaurant next door will rent y ou a table for two soles (40p).
This ceviche haunt is a well-kept secret known only to locals; little more than a couple of stools next to the counter of a fish stall in Lima’s vast fresh produce market, it’s one for diners who like their lunch so fresh it’s practically still wriggling. Seeing your meal chopped and prepped a few feet from your face isn’t for all takers; though if you’ve the stomach for it, it’s a real Lima experience: your fellow diners a mixed crowd of grisly stallholders and anxious sous chefs stocking up on supplies for Lima’s upscale restaurants. You can select your fish and have it prepared as you like, if your Spanish is up to the task; however most come for the mixed fish and seafood ceviche. It’s served the way the Lima working man takes it: filling fish soup to start, then a glistening plate of ceviche simply cured in tart lime juice and red onion, with a choice of fish fritters or seafood rice on the side. Clink a glass of leche de tigr e with your counter companions and you’re practically a local.
Your toast: “Arriba (glasses up), abajo (glasses down), al centro (glasses to the front) adeeentrooo (gulp it down)!”
The name of this Barranco institution translates as “singing frog”, and little wonder. Indeed much of the joy of this 30-year-old cevicheria is in its madcap decor: its walls crowded with photographs and framed football jerseys of the Peruvian national football team; its ceiling strung with a united nations of flags. Canta Rana is a favourite with families, and much beloved by visitors (for very good reason), who crowd around its white paper-clothed tables in large, rambunctious groups ordering a pick ’n’ mix of Canta Rana’s 17 varieties of ceviche para compartir (to share). And you should follow their lead: comparing the flavours of a classic grouper ceviche, served with velvety steamed sweet potato and canchita, or crunchy dried corn with its mellower cousin, tiradito; here succulent strips of cojinova fish marinated until barely opaque are accompanied by vibrant yellow ají and range rocoto sa uce (the latter packing a chilli punch). Arrive for late lunch service and, if you’re lucky, you’ll be treated to waitress Maria (who joined Canta Rana in the 80s) belting out a pop song as the waiters whistle along. It’s fusion of Peruvian and Uruguayan culinary elements make it a popular feature in guides which can mean an abundance of tourists but don’t let that stop you: it’s popular for a reason.