Note: This was originally published July 2018 in the 4th issue of Kitchen Work a print quarterly journal about what and how we eat. This piece resulted from my time as a Storyteller-In-Residence at the Cayuga Resorts, Latitude 10, which was organized by Coffee Abroad. The theme was “Food with Philosophy.” I am very grateful to all the above for this experience.
Juice of 2 to 3 limes
1 cup diced fillet of fresh fish, such as mahi mahi
1 small chile, minced
Squeeze lime juice over fish, mix in chile, and let sit for a few moments to cure.
I once met a commercial fisherman who was president of the artisanal fishing cooperative of Tarcoles. He demonstrated how he made ceviche. He chopped up a raw mahi mahi fillet, squeezed lime juice over the square chunks of fish, minced a hot pepper, and mixed it all together. “In the morning, when I leave in my panga to fish, I take only a lime and a chile,” he said. “I eat ceviche for lunch. All fishermen in Costa Rica do.” There was something so fundamental and yet elegant in his lunch; it showed such confidence in the sea. Recalling the beginnings of the cooperative, he said, “We realized the fish were getting smaller and so we started collecting our own data. We designed seasons so we didn’t fish when the fish had just hatched. At those times, we closed off estuaries to fishing. We knew that if we lost the fish, we’d lose our kids to the city or the drug trade.” Then he pointed to a shrimp trawler on the horizon, nets akimbo, scooping up everything in its path. “They’re out there, just three kilometers offshore. All day every day. There’s nothing we can do about that.” I tasted his ceviche. It was a simple balance of flavors of land, sea, and sky — tangy acid, slight heat, firm fish.
Los Mangos Ceviche
Fresh, local fish in season, such as mahi mahi, finely diced
Lots of lime juice
Red bell pepper, seeded and julienned
Lots of cilantro, finely chopped
A large, bulbous termite nest swelled from the branch of a soursop tree like an injured knee. A spider monkey hung from the branch by her tail and scratched her belly. She hopped to another tree and grabbed a citrus leaf and rubbed herself. Our guide here in the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre, Juan, explained, “Citrus helps keep the mosquitoes away. And the monkeys eat lots of termites. They are an important source of protein.” He pointed out the guanacaste tree with its pods that the indigenous of the area once rubbed with water and lathered into soap. Just beyond was a giant, glorious ceiba tree. Its crown reached high above the rain forest canopy, and its tangle of branches hosted its own botanical garden filled with bromeliads, orchids, and philodendrons.
The Aztecs believed that when we died, our souls climbed these trees to get to heaven. Biologist David George Haskell wrote of the rain forest, “We’re all — trees, humans, insects, birds, bacteria — pluralities. Life is embodied network.” All around us, birds perched — a black-headed trogon, a scarlet macaw, and a blue-crowned motmot, its turquoise tail dangling from a branch — and a woodpecker went to work on tropical hardwood. “Tree roots are symmetrical with their branches,” Juan explained. “They spread as far down and wide as they do up and out.” This collective verb of an ecosystem in which we live does as well.
On the way back from the refuge, we stopped at Los Mangos, a cevicheria set up in a side yard of a house. A dog with a huge overbite greeted us, and the focal point of the room was a television showing a soccer match. Our soupy bowls of ceviche came — the finely diced mahi mahi just below the lime juice, flotsam of shredded cilantro on the surface, bits of diced red bell pepper adding festive color. Two very large warm patacones, made from fried and flattened green plantains, accompanied it.
At my first bite of patacones, I experienced déjà vu — it all felt so familiar: the dog napping in the dusty driveway under the shade of a flamboyant tree, scratchy cumbia on a radio somewhere, the smell of frying oil. I remembered my ex–mother-in-law in Havana making tostones, the Cuban equivalent of patacones. She’d slice green plantains, flash fry them, and put them in a brown bag. Then she’d have me smash them with my closed fist. Then she’d show me the right way to do it. If my husband entered the room, she’d remind him that no woman would ever love him like his mother. Then she’d let me smash another bag. Then correct how I did it. I’d hit the plantains harder and harder until they became thin patties.
Right then, in Costa Rica, dipping the edge of my salty fried plantain into the bright, lively ceviche, I missed her tostones. I tasted the ceviche — the freshness of the citrus and cilantro — and knew she would never have been capable of either making or eating it. She liked heavy, salty foods of neutral color. Tostones were as close as she came to happiness. This memory of her wiped out my nostalgia. Then I dipped the patacón, and the nostalgia came back. Then I tasted the ceviche — it went away again. This went on for some time.
1 cup lime juice
½ cup lemon juice
½ cup orange juice
1 pound ocean-caught mild white fish, diced into ¼-inch cubes
½ ají limo or habanero chile, seeded and halved lengthwise
1 small red onion, quartered and thinly sliced, divided
1 small sweet potato (about 8 ounces), peeled, boiled, and diced
1 ear of corn, husked and boiled
Pour juices over fish. Add chile, onion, salt, and cilantro and let cure for 15 minutes. Garnish with sweet potato and corn.
While attending a ceviche-making class at the Latitude 10 Resort, on the beach at Santa Teresa, a man at the table — a Tico (or Costa Rican) — said that he preferred Peruvian ceviche. He explained, “It’s spicier. They use ají amarillo and rocoto peppers. Sweet potato and corn balance the heat.”
Peruvians lay claim to being the originators of ceviche. As some stories go, it started with the indigenous Moche culture that lived along the northern coast of Peru. There were no limes in the country before the Spaniards arrived, so they used fermented passion fruit to brine the fish and ate it with ají chiles and seaweed. Historian Juan Jose Vega wrote that ceviche comes from the Arabic word sibech. After conquering the Moorish stronghold of Granada, Spain, the Spaniards snatched Moorish women as loot and brought them to Peru with Pizarro’s expedition. There, the women marinated fish with sour oranges that grew prolifically back in Andalusia. Later, the Spanish introduced limes to their capital city of Lima.
Costa Rican ceviche, by contrast, is not spicy. A non-spicy pepper like a red bell pepper is often used, and since it’s milder, there’s no need to balance it with sweetness. Really, there is no one right way to make ceviche. Here’s what’s great about ceviche: if you use good, fresh seafood, it’s virtually impossible to mess it up. So you’d think.
But Donald Trump is the president of the United States right now, and I sure as shit wasn’t going to get opinionated about national dishes in my broken Spanish. So I smiled, shrugged, and said, “A mí me gustan los dos.” (“I like both.”) Like the Switzerland of ceviche. Not sure it makes up for what’s taking place in the reality-show-gone-awry up north. Ceviche neutrality can only do so much. And really, if I had to choose, fermented passion fruit and seaweed ceviche sounded really good to me.
Ceviche with Coconut Milk, Mango, and Ginger
1 cup diced white saltwater fish
1 cup lime juice
½ cup coconut milk
½ cup finely diced mango
1 tablespoon unsweetened ginger simple syrup* Let the fish cure in lime juice for 15 minutes, then add the other ingredients.
*To make the ginger simple syrup, peel 8 oz. ginger root, cut into thin rounds, place in a pot with 2 cups water, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for at least 30 minutes. Remove from heat and chill.
A tiger shark attacked and killed a woman on Cocos Island recently. This made me so sad — for the woman who lost her life, and because sharks don’t need any more bad PR. I’m here right now because of Cocos Island and my unrequited love for hammerheads.
My first and only tattoo is of these sharks. While diving on Cocos four years ago, I dropped down to eighty, one hundred feet and to a rocky pinnacle “cleaning station.” While waiting, I watched eagle rays belly-rub themselves into the sandy sea bottom. Moray eels poked their heads out from rock caves, and a giant yellowfin tuna took my breath away. And then she arrived out of the blue, a female hammerhead sporting a thunderbolt scar from mating, and I gasped at her beauty, her freakish head, and her slick, pure-willpower muscle body. Small barber fish came out and ate all the parasites off of her. My god, this creature! What immortal hand or eye framed this symmetry?
And then schools of them appeared above me, layers in the water, and a new world opened up, and these were its strange, skittish, beautiful souls. Poachers often dropped long lines with baited hooks into this ocean reserve to catch the hammerheads and sell their fins for shark fin soup, a popular dish that denotes prestige in Asia.
An estimated 100 million sharks are killed each year for shark fin soup, and Costa Rica has long been considered the shark finning capital of the world. In exchange for the Puente Amistad, or Friendship Bridge, that the Taiwanese government built for Costa Rica, Taiwan got fishing rights and private docks and warehouses to unload their catch. It was a bloodbath. Then the bridge began crumbling from infrastructure problems and then an earthquake further damaged it. Costa Rica broke up with Taiwan and started up with China, who built them a soccer stadium. And then the Chinese got to plunder the seas.
Most of the people of Costa Rica I met were not in support of this. Those who saw my tattoo told me that diving at Cocos Island was their dream. Except one man — he pointed at my foot and said, “Those are delicious.”
People killed by sharks in Costa Rica in the past 400 years: 5
Sharks killed by people in Costa Rica in the past 400 years: hundreds of millions and still counting.
“Celeje” Ceviche with Cass, Hearts of Palm, Mango, and Avocado
1 cup diced white saltwater fish
1 cup cass juice
½ cup diced avocado
½ cup finely diced mango
1/3 cup hearts of palm, cut into thin rounds
I learned a new word from a young Tica, celeje, that may or may not exist in formal Spanish. As it was explained to me, it’s the colors on the horizon after the sun has set, or the colors that appear when the sun is about to rise. It’s more than a dwindling. It’s the fraction between exhale and inhale, a process that can’t be found, a moment that can’t be held, the smell of last night’s rain, the sound of waves receding.
It’s like trying to duplicate this ceviche once back in the States. I wouldn’t be able to find mahi mahi, so could substitute rockfish. Avocados are there. Hearts of palm, in a can. Mangos, yes, just not as sweet. But the cass — a little guava, tart in flavor, almost citrus-like but not quite — I could never find that.
So I let go of any hope for a future between myself and this ceviche.
Ceviche de Shambala
(Don’t worry about the ingredients, you’ll never make this one. It’s too complicated.)
There were natives in Costa Rica before the Spanish arrived, but they were part of small tribes rather than empires like the Aztecs or Incas or Mayans.The terrain had too many densely forested mountains and crocodile-filled streams. But it’s rumored that leaders from the empires met here and many of the scattered tribes were descendants of them.
And so haute cuisine did not evolve here like it has in Mexico and Peru. Traditionally, the roads were bad and farmers couldn’t transport their crops far. And when they fixed the roads, marauding pirates and invaders had more access. It became a country of coffee barons, United Fruit Company plantations, and scratch farmers working tough terrain.
Costa Rica is not fully self-realized in a culinary sense, and Chef Randy Siles is something of a pioneer — or conquistador, depending on your language preference and how you feel about food. I think of him as a revolutionary, an Emiliano Zapata of ceviche.
“We have six percent of the earth’s biodiversity in Costa Rica,” he said. “And we are only .03 percent of the world’s surface. We should have cuisine that reflects this.” He buys his produce from a small local farm run by a French-Basque–New Yorker surfer who saves seeds and keeps crossing them until anything can grow in his tropical hilltop farm. My ceviche had fresh dill on it. Not an easy feat in the tropics.
Siles buys what the artisanal fishermen catch. Not just the popular fish but also the ugly accidental ones, and he makes them taste good.
He hires local kids who didn’t finish high school and trains them. “My sous chef, he was out clearing fields with oxen at age fifteen,” Siles said. “He didn’t learn how to read. He just traveled to Miami and Spain with me.”
Siles brought me his ceviche. Thinly sliced fish, almost carpaccio-style but brined in dashi, an influence of his time spent studying food in Japan. It was served under a glass cloche. When he removed the lid, a cloud of rosemary escaped and the fragrance was an unexpected, lovely surprise; it was the scent of local bounty and of a destiny still unfulfilled.
Melancholic Ceviche by Emilio
1 pound of fish other than mahi mahi
½ cup julienned white onion
½ cup julienned red bell pepper
Salt and pepper
½ cup lime juice
Note: Emilio blends the onion, bell pepper, cilantro, salt, and pepper with the fish before adding the lime juice so that the flavors infuse the flesh prior to lime juice being added.
I went out sport fishing with two guides, Emilio and Deiber, from the nearby town of Mal Pais. We sped past the Cabo Blanco marine reserve, named for the rock island often covered with blue-footed booby guano. Waves had cut caves into the lee side of it, and a cacophony of shorebirds squawked from rocky cliffs. We went just beyond one kilometer more, where fishing was allowed.
Our guides started casting with a lure that had a shiny metal sardine that spun and sparkled in the water. We drove slowly, trolling the hooks behind us. In just a few moments, one line bent and a mahi mahi broke the surface and jumped into the air. The guides strapped a pole belt onto me and I started reeling in as I was told to — winding in while letting the pole down, pulling up while bringing the pole in. The fish fought, but I slowly, slowly reeled it toward the boat. Deiber grabbed a large hook to gaff it with, and Emilio grabbed a fishing pole. “The male is following her!” Emilio said as he started swinging the hook at the male.
“What?” I said.
“Yeah, it’s normal,” he said. “I’m going to catch him too.”
“They’re a fish couple? Do they mate for life?” I shrieked. “Good God, let her go!”
Deiber gave me a look like I was crazy and then gaffed her through the head. Emilio missed the male. Apparently, when this happens, the other fish either continues to follow the boat for miles or he waits for his mate to return.
Later, Emilio made her into ceviche, and we ate her. I felt melancholy. My fishing guides were in good spirits.
12 saltwater oysters, small to medium size
½ cup lime juice
1/4 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon cilantro leaves
Shuck the oysters. Separate the meat from the shells and save both.
In a large bowl, combine the juices. Add the drained oysters and let cure for 5 to 10 minutes. Place the cured oysters back into the shells and garnish each with a cilantro leaf.
The sun was so bright over the Gulf of Nicoya that the water, with its glassy green-gray sheen, looked overexposed. A grid of bright blue buoys marked the site of Aquamar oyster farm. As our boat approached, the scene was familiar. I had seen it in California, Alaska, anywhere oysters are cultivated. But here, in Costa Rica, it came as a surprise.
Marine biologists at the Universidad Nacional in Punta Arenas started the program. They cultivated oyster spat from the Japanese species M. gigas that would grow in warm water and then set up a system that leased permits to groups of twelve that must include at least one commercial fisherman. The goal was to establish a new industry in waters that had been overfished. In the Gulf of Nicoya, fishing productivity had fallen by eighty percent between 1995 and 2015 due to overfishing. In 2011, the Puerto Níspero Fishing Association made its own sustainability plan, like Tarcoles, and created no-fishing zones and limited gear to hook and line. But still, comeback was slow and the coastal communities were impoverished. So oyster farming is a new, nascent solution.
These bivalves require no feed, no fresh water, and no antibiotics. Each oyster filters fifty gallons of water a day.
We made a quick detour to pick up one of the crew, Marta Guadamuz. She had been married to a commercial fisherman for many years. During this time, she often asked him to take her out fishing with him so she could experience the ocean. He always told her she couldn’t because she’d then be too tired to do her chores. Now he found that he didn’t like being away from home, so he had taken to making the cages for the oysters but wasn’t going to the site. Marta does get out on the water and helps clean the oysters and get them ready for market. As the boat pulled up to the small floating hut where they processed their oysters, she told me, “I like it here at the oyster house. It’s a good way to make money. And it’s beautiful.”
The oysters were super mild with low brine and a lovely deep cup. It felt so familiar and so innovative at the same time. It made me think about how humans are seekers yet also creatures of habit; we desire familiarity yet need novelty. Ceviche is a food of paradox; its constant variations are creative tensions between the past and the future, between nature and culture, between what has been and what is to come.