Latin American food is having something of a ‘moment’ in the hungry capital of Abu Dhabi. Everyone already loves tacos, burritos and quesadillas but few venture past the more familiar menu items to discover local favourites from further afield than Mexico.
Enter ceviche – the sushi equivalent of the Latin American world. Many restaurants in the capital offer a wide range of raw fish – everything from small local fish to larger fish from the deep sea – and many variations of the other colourful and simple ingredients which compose any ceviche dish.
For the unfamiliar, ceviche reduced to its most basic parts is raw fish marinated in citrus and spices; the acid in the juice denatures the proteins in the meat in the same way cooking does. The flesh becomes opaque, the texture firmer and drier, while the flavours remain fresh – it’s the perfect zingy dish for a hot summer day.
Classic ceviche preparations always consist of fish, salt, red onions and ají, Peru’s unique chili pepper, all drenched in lime juice. Chef de Cuisine Phillip Harbin at Asia de Cuba called says, ‘The marinade is called leche de tigre, or tiger’s milk, and the simplicity of this elixir makes ceviche work so hard to mess up.’
Chefs Brendan Mica, Luis Pous and Philip Harbin
Asia de Cuba, the renowned restaurant chain from New York which serves legendary Chino-Latino cuisine, is soon to offer a ceviche masterclass for those inclined to DIY. We get a sneak peek into the session and discover it to be interactive, relaxed and filled with all the secrets to making ceviche at home with ease.
After a round of welcome drinks, we are shown into the kitchen where head Chef Phillip and his sous chefs walk us step-by-step through the art of making their signature starter ceviche de pescado.
Chef Phillip says, ‘What stops people from making ceviche at home is that often people are intimidated by selecting and handling the fresh fish, but it couldn’t be easier. You can use any fish you like; it just has to be fresh.’
Chef de Cuisine Phillip Harbin
He then teaches his students to filet and descale the fish, which you may or may not need or care to learn as it is so simple to have this done for you at your local fishmonger. But Phillip breaks it down into very simple parts all the same.
Chef Phillip then takes us to our stations where colourful bowls of the freshest ingredients are set out before us. Chef Phillip reminds us that, ‘As with your choice of fish – which can be anything, your other ingredients can also be varied. For example, you can use any citrus you like from lime to lemon to pineapple – they all work. It just depends on your tastes. You can also throw in anything else. Asia de Cuba makes vegetable ceviches to accommodate vegetarians. We can make ceviche out of mushrooms, beetroot, avocado and asparagus, but it can be anything you have on hand.’
He then breaks down all the steps to make a fresh and yummy ceviche, and it’s as easy as 1-2-3.
1. Once the fish, red snapper in this case, is prepared, it is then sliced into uniform-sized pieces, which can be cubes or slices as long as they are the same size. Chef Phillip, says ‘This step is of the utmost importance so the fish cooks evenly.’ We are then issued gloves and turn to the other ingredients, slicing jalapeno peppers, red and spicy Fresno peppers, red onion, coriander and ginger into a uniform dice. Wearing gloves is essential when dicing spicy ingredients, such as the peppers.
2. Into a mixing bowl, we pour several tablespoons of lime with a pinch of flaked salt and swirl it together. Chef Phillip encourages us to taste test it for saltiness. He explains, ‘If it’s too briny, just add more lime juice until you achieve balance – you will know it when you taste it.’
We then put the pepper and onion mixture into the salt-citrus bath along with the fish and watch as the citric acid ‘cooks’ the chopped fish without heat, turning the flesh from translucent pink to opaque white. Chef Phillip instructs us to, ‘Leave the fish in the bath according to taste – 10-30 minutes will give you a medium rare fish. Do not let your fish sit longer than 30 minutes because that will overcook it.’
3. He then provides each of us with a serving platter and asks us to strain the fish and stagger it elegantly along the length of plate, garnishing it with drops of the leche de tigre, coriander, flower petals, strips of julienned red pepper, accompanied by salted plantain chips (tostones), which also are also a nice accompaniment to their menu of beverages.
We each proudly display our handiwork, which we are eager to sample. The fish is lovely, fresh and light. This is a perfect starter to dish to dazzle guests with. They will think you spend loads of money on fantastic fish and time in the kitchen preparing it. Neither has to be the case as our favourite ceviche in town has been composed of inexpensive local Shaari fish which is easy to procure and will run you around Dhs50 for a large, fileted fish. It is also quick and easy to prepare ceviche. Chef Phillip advises that you make and serve your ceviche immediately so you don’t run the risk of overcooking the fish.
Presentation plays a huge role with ceviche dishes
If you, like us and many other Abu Dhabi residents, have recently fallen in love with ceviche, there is nothing stopping you from making it at home. As long as your fish or shellfish is fresh and your marinade is tasty, there’s little that can ruin a homemade ceviche. Give it a try.
The ceviche making classes are expected to begin this autumn at Asia de Cuba. Nation Riviera Beach Club, St. Regis Abu Dhabi, Corniche West, www.asiadecuba.com (02 699 3333).
How to slice your fish
First, you need to find a sharp knife suitable for slicing through your fresh fish. Slicing at an angle ensures you’ll avoid chewy sinews and get tender bites every time.
1. Trim each fillet into long, straight pieces between 4-5cm long.
2. Wet your (sharp!) knife with cold water before each cut – this helps prevent the flesh from shredding.
3. Hold your knife at a 45-degree angle and slice 0.5cm thick pieces, wiping the blade clean after each cut.
Follow your nose
Chef Phillip offers these simple tips for purchasing the freshest fish
Go to a trusted source. The best is obviously to catch it yourself or have a trusted fisherman as a family friend. In the absence of that, the next best thing is a dedicated fishmonger. Look for shops that are clean, busy, and scrupulous about their fish. Fish should kept on top of and under crushed ice, or in refrigerated display cases on top of ice.
Follow your nose. Fresh fish should not smell fishy. It should smell faintly briny. The same rules apply for shrimp, scallops, squid, and other shellfish. If your fishmonger won’t let you smell his fish, find a new fishmonger, or eat burgers instead.
Look for firm flesh. Fresh fish flesh should have a clean, slightly translucent appearance that doesn’t give when you push.
Look a fish in its eye. Fresh fish should have bright, clear, moist looking eyes. Avoid fish that has a cloudy film over its eyes.