My older daughter, Abigail, who lives in San Francisco, agreed to meet me in Peru, and my wife, Alice, said she’d link up with us in Quito. When I dropped into Chicama to ask Douglas Rodriguez for some tips about where to eat down there, he said he’d prefer to show us himself, and we arranged to meet him and his wife and his publisher and the ceviche-bar chef from Chicama in Guayaquil for a couple of days of sampling. We had become the ceviche gang.
“Would it be fair to say that you’re wimping out on the guinea pig?” Abigail asked.
We were in a restaurant in Cuzco. At the table next to us, there was a woman who had the appearance of a classic gringa—a very pale American of the type that the people of Cuzco sometimes refer to as a cruda, meaning, literally, “uncooked.” She looked like the sort of tourist who might ask the waiter if there was anything available from a can, but we had just seen her presented with an entire roasted guinea pig, head and all. Abigail had spoken just as the waiter took a picture of the guinea pig and then carried it back to the kitchen to be dismembered. As the carcass passed our table, it occurred to me that Louisiana, which is trying to encourage people to eat nutria, might find it advantageous to join forces with Peru to form a Rodent Marketing Board.
I reminded Abigail that trout was also a specialty of the area, and I had ordered trout ceviche—a bold move into freshwater ceviche that I considered the equivalent of going to Wisconsin and ordering, say, walleye sashimi. I’d also had ceviche in Arequipa, squeezing a sea-bass version in between stuffed-pepper stops, and it was already clear to me that Peruvians and Ecuadoreans had different notions of what authentic ceviche is. In Peru ceviche is not something soupy that comes in a bowl; it would not ordinarily include additives like tomatoes. It is, essentially, chunks of fish (or shrimp or some combination of shellfish) and spices and shredded onions—served on a plate, eaten with a fork, and flanked by a couple of thick wedges of potato or corn. I would imagine that Peruvians consider their version of ceviche stately and Ecuadoreans consider it dull.
Abigail and I had a lot of it. In the Lima shorefront neighborhood of Chorrillos, we visited a couple of spots that had a dozen or two cevicherias side by side in a single ramshackle shed. And at Costa Verde, one of the vast and somewhat overblown Lima restaurants built out into the Pacific, a waiter wearing a tuxedo served us Ceviche Don Raúl, a scallop, shrimp, and mushroom mixture that, according to the menu, was a contender for culinary honors at the World Exposition in Seville in 1992.
About an hour south of Lima, in Pucusana, a fishing village that is also the site of some flashy vacation houses, we came across a neatly dressed young man behind a cart of the sort hot-dog vendors use in New York. He was wearing a baseball cap and an exceedingly white T-shirt. He had set up shop just a few yards from the market shed where the local fishermen brought in their catch. A couple of umbrellas shaded the cart, and a half dozen plastic stools had been placed on one side for customers. A sign announced that the young man was a specialist in instant ceviche. After a customer had ordered, the instant-ceviche specialist went to work, using a stainless-steel kitchen bowl as a sort of wok. He squeezed a few hyperacidic little lemons onto the fish, then added chopped-up celery and garlic and peppers and a little water and shredded onions. He stirred and cut with practiced motions, at one point flicking a bit of the sauce on the back of his hand so he could check the balance of spices with a quick taste. The entire ceviche-making process couldn’t have taken more than 30 or 40 seconds. After he’d placed my ceviche on a plate, he hesitated for a moment, and then tossed onto the side of the plate a handful of cancha. Abigail seemed to catch the relief on my face. I think at that moment we may both have faced up to the possibility that what I had been dreaming of for seven or eight years was not ceviche but panfried corn kernels.
Not that I had any complaints about the ceviche. The one dished out by the specialist in instant ceviche was first-rate, and so was the one I had across the street, in a restaurant called Bahia-Turistica, an hour later. I was having trouble keeping my focus, though, because other dishes crowded in on the ceviches like so much tasty static. This problem was particularly acute at Costanera 700, a Lima seafood restaurant whose proprietor, Humberto Sato, is spoken of by ceviche hounds like Douglas Rodriguez in tones approaching reverence. Sato named his restaurant after its address—a service to customers, since there is no sign. Like a lot of serious seafood restaurants in Lima—or serious purveyors of Arequipeña specialties in Arequipa, for that matter—Costanera 700 is open only for the midday meal. It’s in a line of buildings on the water’s edge of the less-than-uplifting Lima neighborhood of San Miguel. Its main dining room, while not unpleasant, suggests a smallish airplane hangar. Our cabdriver had a difficult time finding Costanera 700 and was not convinced we had made it even after we’d arrived. The drivers of important politicians and businessmen apparently have no such problem; they’re familiar with the route.
Humberto Sato turned out to be a preternaturally calm man of Japanese ancestry who speaks about fish in the way a master furnituremaker might discuss fruitwoods. His menu offered five sorts of ceviche. Abigail and I ordered Ceviche Costanera, which is made with olive oil, and Ceviche La Paz, a Peruvian coastal ceviche that takes on a yellowish color from the peppers used to season it. The ceviches were perfect: The tastes of the fish and the marinades and the spices blended together with great subtlety. We figured that before we went on to the tiradito—a Peruvian form of ceviche in which the fish is in slices, as in sashimi, instead of in chunks, and is usually served without onions—we’d vary the meal with shrimp served sizzling on an iron griddle. That dish can sometimes be no more than a garlic-delivery system, but not in Sato’s hands. Encouraged, we tried the chita, a fish I’d never heard of, cooked inside a cast of salt, which the waiter carefully cracked open, like an experienced orthopedist freeing up a mended ankle. Then we had rice with tiny shrimp. At that point, the tiradito was simply an impossibility. I comforted myself with the thought that we were about to go to Ecuador, where something like tiradito would probably be thought of as nothing more than a good start.