On a steamy June afternoon seven or eight years ago, I was standing just off a curb in midtown Manhattan, trying unsuccessfully to get a cab to La Guardia Airport. I found myself having thoughts about the city that would not have pleased the Convention & Visitors Bureau—thoughts about the weather, thoughts about the structural flaws of the New York taxi industry. Then a Lincoln town car appeared in front of me. The uniformed driver lowered the window, and I was hit with frigid air. “Where you going?” he said.
“La Guardia,” I said.
I got in. The driver identified himself as José. As we made it over the bridge and hit the Grand Central Parkway, he told me that he was from Ecuador, a country I had visited a few months before. I told him how much I’d enjoyed Ecuador—the gorgeous mountains, the markets, and, most of all, the ceviche.
Ceviche in Ecuador, I said, is to American ceviche what the seafood cocktails of Veracruz—oysters, shrimp, snails, octopus, crab, avocado, onions, and coriander chopped in front of your eyes into a liquid that in a just world would be what Bloody Mary mix tastes like—are to those balsa-wood and ketchup combinations that people in country-club dining rooms get when they order the shrimp-cocktail appetizer.
Ecuadorean ceviche starts out with fresh fish cured by being marinated in lemon juice and enlivened by whatever else the chef has thought to add. It’s liquid, like a bowl of tangy cold soup. Roasted corn kernels (flicked off Andean corn, whose kernels are sometimes the size of broad beans) are served on the side, to be tossed in for both flavor and crunch. Some restaurants offer not only roasted corn kernels but popcorn. Yes, popcorn—what less fortunate humans eat at the movies!
“You like that ceviche?” José asked. He sounded pleased but mildly surprised, like an artist who has just heard effusive praise of a painting that is actually one of his earlier works.
“I love that ceviche, José,” I said. “I would probably kill for that ceviche.”
“When’s your plane?” José asked.
“Oh, I’ve got time,” I said.
Instantly, he swerved off the Grand Central, and we were driving along a commercial street in Queens. Most of the signs on the stores were in Spanish. Some were in Chinese or Korean. In five minutes, we turned onto a side street, in front of a restaurant called Islas Galapagos.
We got two orders of ceviche. We cleaned our bowls. Then we got back into the car and drove to La Guardia. “This is a great city, José,” I said as I hauled my baggage out of the icy splendor of his town car. “A little hot sometimes, but a great city.”
On the other hand, the sort of New Yorker who’s confident that even a stroke of good fortune can be complained about might point out that I had to go all the way to Queens to find Ecuadorean ceviche. I live in lower Manhattan, and at the time I met José, I’d almost never had a ceviche close to home. In New York I had never even seen roasted corn kernels—what Ecuadoreans sometimes call tostados and Peruvians call cancha. (They are neither roasted nor toasted, of course, but pan-fried, then salted, so that they’re crunchy on the outside and soft, almost powdery, on the inside.) A couple of ceviches I had in Manhattan actually came accompanied by commercial Cornnuts, which, being approximately the right size and color, serve as a substitute for cancha about as effectively as marshmallows, being approximately the right size and color, would serve as a substitute for diver scallops.
These days, ceviche is definitely available in Manhattan. Around the time of my La Guardia adventure, Douglas Rodriguez brought it into the mainstream at Patria, and he later installed an entire ceviche bar at Chicama, complete with popcorn. I’ve read about a Manhattan restaurant that offers a sort of pour la table ceviche appetizer for $50—a dish no visiting Ecuadorean would be able to eat, of course, since he would have fainted dead away upon learning the price.
Still, as the years passed, I thought more and more about a trip to serious ceviche country, which could mean, of course, almost anywhere in Latin America. When FBI agents tapped the prison phone calls of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, one conversation that made them suspect that he was employing a devilishly clever code concerned a ceviche recipe. Ceviche is so entrenched in Mexico that Rick Bayless, a scholar of Mexican food, has been serving it, usually made from marlin, since he opened Frontera Grill in Chicago 14 years ago. There is wide agreement, though, that the red-hot center of ceviche eating is around Ecuador and Peru—two countries that, after several decades, have more or less settled their border dispute but still argue about which one does the best job with marinated fish.
Last spring I decided I had to go to Ecuador and Peru to get a booster shot of the real article. A number of people asked me if I really intended to travel all that way just to eat ceviche. Not at all. In Peru, for instance, I was looking forward to sampling the stuffed pepper that many consider the signature dish of Arequipa, and I fully intended to have my share of Andean potatoes. I thought I might tuck away some churros—possibly some churros with chocolate on them. I still remembered a couple of the soups I’d had during my first trip to Ecuador while staying at a charming inn called Hacienda Cusin, near the great Andean market town of Otavalo, and I thought I might see about arranging a reprise. I was seriously considering guinea pig, which is such a strong regional specialty around Cuzco that the most famous 17th-century religious painting in the Cuzco cathedral shows it as what Jesus and his disciples are about to eat at the Last Supper. I also had visions of sitting in a comfortable hotel bar somewhere sipping Pisco sours while tossing down handfuls of cancha and expressing sympathy for travelers who were at that moment at other hotel bars all around the world trying to make do with mixed nuts. No, I assured the people questioning my trip, I wasn’t going all that way just to eat ceviche. I like to think of myself as a broad-gauged person.