Friday, May 25, 2012

In Search of the Perfect Ceviche (Nicaragua)

From my TravelOkcity column, May 2012

Still life in Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Bright red slices of tuna, firm pink slivers of salmon, and tender flaky grilled marlin - these were the things we dreamed of everyday, weeks before our trip to Nicaragua. Because of the country’s expansive coastlines, with the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the East, and because it is home to the largest lake in Central America, we anticipated a fish and shellfish fiesta. We tasted succulent shrimps and crunchy fish tacos in our mouth every time we discussed our itinerary. And did I mention the lobster? Sweet whole lobsters in shiny red shells danced before us, haunting even our waking moments. Then we landed on the Corn Islands, east off the Caribbean coast, and discovered that it was not the season for lobster. In fact, there was hardly any seafood to be had.

Chalice of joy at Tranquilo Cafe, Little Corn

The Farm Peace and Love hosted our first dinner that night. An Italian lady was preparing an authentic Italian meal and on the menu: chicken. What else was there, we prodded, hoping for some mussels or shrimp in the pasta.  The answer:  primavera. Of course. 

All throughout our stay in the Corn Islands, we encountered a similar scenario.  One delicious disappoint after the other in the form of fried plantains and beef in tomato sauce. But on our last day in Little Corn, we found ourselves a sweet spot at the Tranquilo Café in front of the dock while we waited for our boat to Big Corn Island. Fresh Ceviche was on the menu.

A Creole cleaning his catch.

In most of Central and South America, the raw fish or seafood marinated  in citrus juices is known as ceviche, cebiche, or seviche. In Guam, it is called kilaguen. In most parts of the Philippines, it is kilawin. In the local regions, it’s kinilaw.  The Hawaiian version is poke. For us, dreaming of a seafood smorgasbord, it’s called: “I could eat this every day”.  It was our heaven in a goblet, everything we’ve dreamed of since we planned this vacation, served in a tall martini glass. It was the cup of promise, chunks of fresh kingfish marinated in lemon and spiced with chili peppers, onion, salt, cilantro, and pepper topped with a flaky cracker. Every bite was tender, juicy, and citrusy, full of the flavors of the ocean. If we couldn’t have the ocean bounty we were promised, we could have a spoonful of the sea anytime with ceviche. From then on, we searched for it in our every stop.

Our cup runneth over at Big Corn Island

At Big Corn Island we were served a helping of seafood salad: fish, shrimps, and lobsters. It went down well with a glass of margarita. We topped a cracker with a mound of the ceviche and enjoyed every morsel, believing that the piece of fish melting in our mouth had been caught just a few hours ago in the beach that we were currently looking out at. We thought it was the perfect companion while we watched the changing warm colors that the sun left on its wake.  Maybe it was the effect of the  sunset, bathing us  with an ethereal glow, or maybe it was because we had been so deprived of seafood after all the anticipation that made us think that it couldn’t get any better.

Back in the mainland, in Managua, in our effort to escape nightspots choked with cigarette smoke and blaring 80s disco music, we found the quiet Restaurant Gallery on top of the Seminole Plaza Hotel.

The perfect bite.

Beautiful white chunks of fresh water bass were brought to us lying on a lettuce leaf in a crystal cup. A slice of lemon on the rim indicated the promise of a refreshing experience. It did not disappoint. The briny sweetness of the sea spiked with a subtle tanginess and the surprising crunchiness of red and green peppers made us smile. Never mind that the fishy taste and smell lingered the entire night on our tongue and lips, the brand of guilty pleasure.

The peeling and weathered paint makes pictures look like Van Gogh paintings.

When we headed to the colonial city of Granada, every beautiful door opened to more fresh servings from the Pacific, the Caribbean, and Lake Nicaragua. Without a doubt, our cup runneth over. Again, never mind that the strong aftertaste haunted our senses. It even seemed like our fingers smelled.

In search of perfection by the Parque Central

At Nuestra Mundo by the Parque Central, we sat outside to watch the horse-drawn carriages while sipping on Coke and Flor de Caña rum and enjoying a generous  heap of ceviche.
Every day, it was one chalice of joy after the other. Could it be that every serving presented to us was perfection? We couldn’t decide which one we’ve had so far was better. Not one won over the other; each one had something slightly different to offer but always satisfying and always leaving us with that strong taste in the mouth that reminded us of the marine life of Nicaragua. 

A walk back in time.

Near the conclusion of our holiday, we discovered La Gran Francia right off the main square, a stately ancestral casona painted in yellow and accentuated by white washed balconies, wooden beams, and terracotta tile roofing, built just a few years after the founding of Granada in 1524. Inside is like a museum of colonial history. Massive paintings and relics adorn the walls and statues of saints look down with disdain on guests. We learned to ignore the ornamentations once the salmon Carpaccio was served at the table - a wonderful blend of smokiness, saltiness, and a whisper of sweetness that played with our palate.  We took our time before we ordered, looking out at the narrow streets of Granada, knowing that our reliable chalice of bliss would not disappoint. For a second it did though as we perused the menu, our eyes flying through many European dishes and then suddenly realizing with dismay that ceviche was not in the list. We looked at our waiter, Juan, perplexed. With a knowing smile he responded: “I’ll ask the chef to prepare one for you.


It stood tall and regal crowned with a purple frill of lettuce, sharply cut avocadoes, and firm tomatoes giving color to the precious white meat swimming in opaque water that almost looked like coconut milk. The first spoonful brought forth a swirl of flavors like rushing water in the mouth. The mild taste of fish was sweet and exciting with the piquant juice that oozed out of it, punctuated with a burst of cilantro sunshine.   Whether  it was the strong shot of lime or cilantro, I’m not sure, but there was hardly any of that pungent taste that seem to linger in the mouth. The experience was as spirited, smooth, and clean as the glass of mojito that we were having with it. The search was over, we thought. We had found the one. We asked   why such an exquisite dish was not in the menu. In broken English he replied, “It’s made on special request for preferred customers.”

The saints were smiling on us that day.


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