Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Seviche

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 Seviche This Latino fish specialty is so good that you won't bother to ask, "Is it raw?
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One of our city's most excellent restaurants recently re-opened after a brief closing, sporting renovated decor and a new moniker that matches its specialty: Seviche.

What's a seviche? It's only half a joke to dub it "Latino sushi," though it's not quite raw: In an ancient Peruvian and Ecuadorian tradition, fish or seafood is marinated in citrus juice, literally "cooking" in the sharply acidic marinade. (Shrimp and some other shellfish may be briefly pre-cooked before marinating; fin fish usually starts raw.)

If you're squeamish about sushi, you may gain reassurance from knowing that seviche turns firm and opaque under the marinating process, losing its raw translucency and texture. (It's only fair to point out that the seviche process does not eliminate the occasional parasite that makes sushi problematic for the cautious. Whether you're making your own or enjoying a restaurant meal, it's always wise to patronize quality, responsible vendors.) But if you love sushi, then I think you'll be smitten by seviche. It's a light, fresh and appetizing dish, cool and subtly complex in textures and flavors, perfect for summer.

Seviche, pronounced "Seh-vee-che" and alternatively spelled "ceviche" or "cebiche," quickly spread from its equatorial place of origin all along the Pacific coast of the Americas from Chile to Mexico and on to California, and it's now gaining attention around the world.

At Seviche, the restaurant, the creative young chef Anthony Lamas offers an extensive Nuevo Latino bill of fare that includes nearly a dozen seviches, plus daily specials, that range from the traditional (simple arrangements of carefully diced fish, tomatoes and onions briefly marinated in tart lime juice with Latino spices) to such offbeat variations as beef tenderloin "seviche" marinated with serrano chiles and toasted-garlic mojo, plus tiraditos, which really are sushi, delicious thin-sliced raw fish dressed only at serving time with tangy-aromatic marinades.

We celebrated the restaurant's reopening with bowls of perfect "Chino-Latino" seviche, sushi-grade tuna marinated with a piquant wasabi-lime mustard and crisp cucumber, served in an edible bowl of crisp fried wonton, and a more traditional daily special of red snapper seviche with yellow and red tomatoes in a snappy tart lime marinade.

They were great, so good that I was inspired to see how close I could come to matching Lamas's efforts in my own kitchen. A trip to an excellent local fish shop (Highland Fish Market in suburban Louisville) ensued, where expert fish guy Gary Hirsch recommended a just-off-the-boat halibut as the best candidate for sushi or seviche. After extensive discussions in our Food Lovers' Forum, I decided to split the fish and make two seviches, one a fairly traditional preparation loosely based on Lamas's Chino-Latino approach, the other a bit more innovative, a cooling variation with avocado and coconut milk. I was very happy with both, and when we went back to Seviche to recalibrate with a seviche based on corvina (the Pacific saltwater fish that's the traditional base for the Peruvian original) and a halibut tiradito, I vainly concluded that my amateur efforts came mighty close to Lamas's high standard.

If you're adventurous, I hope you'll give seviche a try, and let me know how it goes. As my experience in Louisville demonstrates, you don't have to live on the seacoast to enjoy excellent fresh fish; but wherever you live, you do need to locate your city's most trustworthy vendors and be prepared to pay a reasonable price for the effort involved in getting quality product fresh to your plate.

INGREDIENTS: (serves 2)

1 to 1 1/2 pounds halibut or other fresh, sushi-quality fish
3 limes
2 lemons
1 orange
1 ripe red tomato
1 ripe yellow tomato

1/2 teaspoon Japanese wasabi powder
1/2 teaspoon Chinese or British dry mustard
1/2 fresh jalapeño pepper
Red onion
Hot sauce (optional)

1/2-inch slice fresh ginger
1 small avocado
1/4 cup coconut milk (canned is OK)
Fresh cilantro (optional)


1. Squeeze the citrus, keeping the lime juice, lemon juice and orange juice separate for now.

2. Peel and seed both tomatoes, and cut the flesh into small dice (1/2-inch or even 1/4-inch if you have the patience). Put them together in a bowl and add salt to taste.

3. Prepare the fish. Remove skin and unattractive bits, if any, and cut the fish into small dice (1/2-inch or even 1/4-inch if you have the patience).

4. Divide the diced fish into two portions and put each portion in a glass or other non-reactive bowl. Put two-thirds of the lime juice and one-third of the lemon juice in the first bowl, and the remaining lime and lemon juice and all the orange juice in the second bowl. Take care to remember which is which, although the color of the orange should be a giveaway. Drain the tomato mixture (save the "water" for later) and stir half of the tomatoes into each bowl.

5. For SEVICHE NO. 1, mince very fine enough seeded jalapeño to make about 1 tablespoon. Chop enough red onion to make about 1/4 cup. Blend the wasabi and dry mustard with enough water to make a smooth paste. Stir all this into the bowl containing the lime-lemon marinade.

6. For SEVICHE NO. 2, peel the avocado and discard the seed. Cut the flesh into dice similar in size to the fish and tomatoes. Add it to the bowl containing the lemon-lime-orange marinade. Peel the fresh ginger and, using a common garlic press, squeeze as much of its juice as you can into this bowl, discarding the solid ginger that remains in the press. (I never use a garlic press for garlic, by the way, but it's worth the nominal price to have one on hand for ginger juice, an outstanding flavor addition in lots of recipes.)

7. COMMENTS ON MARINATING TIME: Cookbooks and Internet recipes vary wildly in their instructions, with advice ranging from 2 hours to 12 hours or "overnight" (which raises the question, who eats seviche for breakfast?) Upon careful consideration and close observation of my dishes and, I believe, Chef Lamas's, less is more. The fish starts to turn firm and opaque within the first hour of marinating, and it didn't seem to change much even in the second hour. I would be concerned about the texture turning mushy and the flavor unacceptably tangy after extended marination, and it's just not necessary. Also, avoid stirring your seviche more than once or twice; you don't want to break up the fish or vegetables.

8. While the fish is marinating, peel the cucumber, scoop out the seeds with a spoon and cut the flesh into, you guessed it, dice of about the same size as the fish and vegetables. Measure out the coconut milk. At serving time, drain almost all of the marinating liquid from both marinating bowls. Add the cucumber dice to SEVICHE NO. 1, where their crisp, unmarinated texture will add a tasty crunch. Flavor with a bit of the tomato "water" reserved in Step 4, plus a dash of hot sauce if desired. Stir the coconut milk into SEVICHE NO. 2 and garnish with fresh cilantro leaves if desired.

Seviche seems to go best with crisp, dry or nearly dry whites, preferably with at least medium body. On our first restaurant visit, Lamas's seviches were brilliant with King Estate 2003 Oregon Pinot Gris. At home, a rich, dry Northern Italian white, Valdinera 2003 Roero Arneis, a John Given import from the Piemonte, was just as fine a match. On our return visit to Seviche, we went an alternate route with Red Stripe Jamaican beer in stubby brown bottles, and that was an estimable option too.

Want a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of this recipe, suitable for printing, online at

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this recipe or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: Seviche,"

Click the REPLY button on the forum page to post a comment or response. (If your E-mail software broke this long link in half, take care to paste it all back into one line before you enter it in your Web browser.)

If you prefer to comment privately, feel free to send me E-mail at

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Last week's Wine Advisor Foodletter: Vitello ripieno (June 30, 2005)

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Thursday, July 7, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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