My lady’s family has been making ceviche for as long as they can trace back. Many of her relatives sold it either at cevicherias or in their own bars. I had also thought that ceviche was from Peru, and that was the end of the story, but ceviche is as Panamanian as the Canal. There is a little cevicheria in the former Panama Canal Zone which has a collection of empty soda bottles lining the walls from all over the world. Spots like this serve up a variety of ceviches out of large plastic tubs with a handful of saltines. Really good stuff. In the Grub Blogger kitchen, we continue this tradition with shrimp, octopus, fish or a combination thereof. Here we make one batch with a combination of pulpo and shrimp and one with fish. The traditional fish used in Panama is called corvina, but the Grub Blogger hasn’t been able to find that often in the States (although he did find some Costa Rican corvina in Miami, once). I have found that kingfish works really well, and also keeps within the tradition of using a cheap piece of fish (no need to buy $20-a-pound wild sea bass for this dish). Look for a white fleshed fish, and you should be fine.The real star of this dish, though, is the marinade. You use a lot of lime, which is the main flavor ingredient, but also acts to “cook” the seafood. The acids in the citris breakdown protein in the seafood to a point where the flesh is basically cooked. This is key with the fish ceviche, because it is not pre-cooked like the shrimp and octopus. Drink just the juice left over and you are enjoying leche de tigre, or tiger’s milk. I have heard of restaurants where Ecaudorian or Peruivian employees save up fish carcasses that weren’t being used for stock, and dump in loads of fresh lime juice, along with scraps of onion and cilantro. Then they pitch fresh, hot peppers into the mix that they grew in their backyards and wait for the little remaining flesh to cook. Apparently, the crevices of the head hide the best parts. My lady’s favorite Panamanian ceviche is called concha negra, which is made from small black clams which seem to only be available in Central America. The flesh is thicker that the clams we are used, closer to conch meat or whelk meat. Below is the set up for shirmp and pulpo. Everything is done the same way for fish, except that you don’t pre-cook the fish.
Cut the shrimp into small pieces (about half-an-inch long) and put into some water in a pot. Bring the water up to the boil, and drain the shrimp when they are pink.
Rinse under cold water to stop the cooking.
Then put in a bowl along with the prepared pulpo and cover with fresh lime juice (the lime press is key here), a few dashes of soy sauce (again, the Chinese influence on Panamanian cooking).
Culantro (or cliantro if you can’t find culantro) for a fresh, green bite.
And aji chombo, which we call habenero. Aji is a another word for chile in Spanish, and chombo is a Panamanian-only word. Chombo refers to a Panamanian of Afro-Antillean descent, of which there are many who are descendents of people who immigrated to the isthmus to work on the Panama Canal. These folk came mostly from the English-speaking parts of the Caribbean, such as Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and other parts of what was then the British East Indies. These migrants brought with their language and foods, the most prevalent of which is the super-hot chili pepper, the habenero, which the native Panamanians call, basically, the “Chili of the Afro-Antillean Migration”.
Throw in some salt and pepper, and let sit in the fridge for at least an hour – preferably overnight – for the flavors to meld and marry. Serve with saltines, or, if you can find them, the traditional canastina, which taste like really good fortune cookies, and can be found almost nowhere outside of Panama (but can be found at Panastore on Franklin Ave in Brooklyn).