I have spoken to you about the romance of both gray and deep blue seas, of fishermen that walk through my grandmother’s door. These are the tastes and sights that permeated my childhood and are easy to conjure up.
But there are some things I’ve left out.
I have never spoken to you of tropical flavors. Of the avocado and lime smoothies we drank every morning in Ethiopia. Of the many gifted guavas in my village in Namibia. Of the strange fruits and flowers that hang low and densely in utterly foreign lands.
I have never spoken to you about the colors.The green mangoes. Big bright red buckets. The street hawkers.
And the perfect chaos. Combis, taxis, cows, women with their colorful cloths as aprons and all that loud local music.
So many familiar contours flooded back to me in Peru, but in the strangest amalgamation of flavors that seemed to belong somehow not only to Peru, but to Norway, Malta, and Namibia. Flavors at once utterly unfamiliar in their depth and yet at the same time familiar. A reminder of past adventures lived. Brought back to life on another of the many journeys made across the Atlantic.
It started with a combi ride. The first in three years. Only this time with Reggaeton instead of South African house.
Then there were the Moorish balconies.
Wooden balconies built for the brave Moorish women who followed reckless men on perilous expeditions. Wooden balconies that uncannily matched the oh so familiar balconies of Malta. Balconies that were first built by Turkish slaves turned craftsmen when the order of St. John ruled the island. It couldn’t be that these balconies were instead built for the Moorish Muslim wives of explorers who used them as a way to observe without being seen. There they were in front of me wooden balconies that originated in Northern Africa and before that Baghdad. In the middle of Lima.
I was in the middle of Dorothy’s twister. And at every turn, with every new history learned a past story appeared at my window. And Lima was Oz. New and wonderful, but with familiar faces
No dish represented this intermingling of flavors past and present than Peru’s national dish, ceviche.
No one can leave Peru without eating ceviche. In fact, if I had had my way in Peru. I would have eaten ceviche every night.
There is proof that ceviche has been eaten in Peru for more than 2000 years, but in those days there was neither onion or lime. Instead, local acidic fruit or spices including salt and aji would be used. It’s long history should be no surprise as all that was needed was raw fish and a substance so astringent that it cooks the fish.
But the ceviche as we know it today came with conquerors. The Moors from Granada gave the dish its name. The Spaniards its two essential ingredients.
Although the etymology of the word ceviche is contested by various linguists, but I like the idea that the name is Arabic, deriving from the word sakbāj which itself means meat preserved in vinegar.
You serve it with red onions and lime, both brought to Peru by the Spanish. Still, no ceviche dish is complete with potatoes and corn. Both pre-columbian plants.
There you have it. One dish that represents centuries of cultural exchange and for me a dish that tastes not only of Peru, but of the exotic places past and future, and of all those deliciously bright colors.
Insomnia has set in since my return to Berlin. And with the it comes the never ending rush of untethered thoughts that occur when you lie wide awake trying to force yourself to sleep.
And on good nights Peru comes back to me.
She invades my bedroom with the same full force as Namibia’s colors used to overwhelm me. Her colors of green-yellow limes, orange yams, the bright purple of native potatoes, spicy red roccotos, yellow ají chiles and the dark brown of roasted chocolate.
Sometimes she blends with Tanzania, Namibia and Ethiopia. And they stretch their hands out holding baskets overflowing with fruit. Fruit brought to perfect ripeness under a beating, glowing, scorching equatorial sun. And in Peru’s case intensified by the taste of melted Andean snow.
2 lbs of scallops (or other white meat fish, shouldn’t be fatty) (note: Although it may look cooked, ceviche does not in fact cook the meat. So make sure to get have fresh good quality fish. Make sure to ask at the store.)
1 red onion cut very finely
1 ají limo or ají chili (search for these at speciality Latin American stores)
Juice the 10 limes into a large mixing bowl. Cut the red onions into finely sliced long thin strips. Cut the ají chili into small pieces. Add both to lime juice. Cut scallops in half and add to lime juice. Marinate for 10-15 minutes.
Serve with sweet potatoes and corn or hominy.