• Fijian ceviche (kokoda) (Sharyn Cairns)Source: Sharyn Cairns
Is it possible to 'cook' without heat? And can scientists and chefs agree on the best way to make ceviche?
Bron Maxabella

28 Apr 2020 - 4:25 PM  UPDATED 14 Feb 2022 - 11:48 PM

Eating raw fish is having a moment. It started with sashimi, quickly embraced tartare, cosied up with gravlax and soon got its poké on. Then along came ceviche and there was a zesty new darling in town.

Is ceviche actually raw, though?

Denaturing, acid-style

At its core, ceviche is basically fresh seafood steeped in an acidic marinade, most commonly lime or lemon juice. The acid in the citrus forms an extremely low pH condition to denature the fish protein networks, much the same as heating would. This results in the seafood becoming opaque and more firm in texture.

Find the recipe here.

"It's definitely not 'raw' fish," says Jimmy Shu, owner of NT restaurants Hanuman and host of Taste of the Territory, who names his 'desert rose' pearl meat ceviche as one of his favourite dishes. "It's cooked in lime juice. You're killing all the germs - you tuck it in [the marinade] for a good 20 minutes, but not too much longer. You don't want it to be too pickled."

"You tuck it in [the marinade] for a good 20 minutes, but not too much longer. You don't want it to be too pickled."

Safety first

Shu is mostly correct about ceviche's acid marinade "killing the germs", however, as with any raw or 'undercooked' seafood dish, there can still be plenty of nasties lurking, ready to bite. 

"Raw seafood, as with many raw animal products, can be naturally contaminated with pathogenic microorganisms, parasites or contain seafood associated toxins," Cathy Moir, food microbiologist with the CSIRO tells SBS Food. "We don’t recommend serving raw seafood to those people that might be more susceptible to food poisoning, including pregnant women, people with reduced immune systems, diabetics or the elderly." 

In order to kill potential pathogens, it's recommended that seafood should be cooked to at least 60 degrees Celcius or cooled to below 4 degrees Celcius. Which is a little tricky to gauge when you're denaturing fresh seafood with acid, rather than heat.

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"You can reduce the risk by being particularly careful about  buying sashimi grade seafood from reputable supplier," says Moir. "Ensure the seafood is kept chilled and maintain strict hygiene when preparing these raw foods. 

"If preparing ceviche style, allowing the seafood to marinate for longer (hours to overnight) and in the fridge, of course, may help with acid inactivation of any microorganisms that might be present."

The fresher the fish, the better the dish.

No wait, freshness first

While an overnight ceviche marinade would make most chefs blanch, the scientists and chefs all agree that the fresher the fish, the better the dish.

"Get the freshest seafood you can get your hands on," says Shu. "Ceviche style keeps the softness and juiciness of the fish."

"It's super important to source a fresh and in season fish," agrees Alejandro Saravia, director and executive chef at Melbourne's Pastuso and Perth's UMA. He advises selecting a delicate flavoured fish with a soft, tender, dry flesh like snapper or blue eyed cod, but whatever is sustainable and in season at the market is the best choice.

Like a tiger

Saravia would know. He grew up eating ceviche in his native Peru, where the dish is a national treasure, celebrated each year on 28 June. "I love ceviche, it’s truly my favourite dish," he enthuses. "I can eat ceviche all day long, as it’s a very versatile dish. The combinations are infinite."

Some inventive sources suggest it's [called tiger's milk] because the acidic nature of the marinade turns men into tigers in bed.

His favourite way to prepare it is using a traditional lech de tiger marinade. It's uncertain why the marinade is called tiger's milk; some inventive sources suggest it's because the acidic nature of the marinade turns men into tigers in bed. Not surprisingly, the marinade is often served alongside the ceviche in a small glass, ready to be thrown back, shot-style.

Gently and quickly does it

Lech de tiger is traditionally made using limes from the north coast of Perú, known as limón sutil, Peruvian chilies, coriander roots and other ingredients that vary depending on the region and the "likings of the cook", as Saravia puts it. This might include turmeric, chilli or coriander, each flavouring turning the tiger's milk a different colour.

Find the recipe here.

As for Moir's recommendation to marinade the seafood for longer to better 'cook' the ceviche, it's definitely not recommended by Saravia.

"Don't over marínate the fish in the tiger's milk," he cautions. "It’s important to let the good quality ingredients shine." Instead, you only need to marinade for "a couple of minutes".

Just like when cooking with heat, too much time spent in the acid marinade can turn seafood rubbery and tough.  Serve it straight away so the fish still looks translucent and vibrant, showcasing the freshness and quality of the seafood selected.


Explore a Taste of the Territory with Jimmy Shu in his brand-new series at 8:30pm Thursdays from 23 April to 11 June on SBS Food and On Demand.

Ceviche on
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To-die-for ceviche

Boasting crunch, creaminess and acidity, this Mexican-style ceviche is just as the name promises. It's a great dish for sharing with plenty of tortilla chips on the side.

Ceviche of dhufish with finger limes

This fresh South American-inspired dish is given an Australian twist with the introduction of popping, citrusy finger lime caviar. 

Oyster ceviche with tiger’s milk

“Leche de tigre”, or “tiger’s milk”, is the South American name for the flavourful, sour liquid drained from a good ceviche. It contains the juices of the seafood and a bite of vinegar or citrus. This colourful oyster ceviche wouldn’t be complete without its tiger’s milk spiced up with a bit of Peruvian grape brandy, pisco. I prefer ceviche served immediately rather than left to cook for too long in the acid.

Lime-cured fish with avocado (ceviche con aguacate)

The simplicity of the flavours in this ceviche are the key to its appeal. Clean and fresh with just a hint of chilli, the crunchy tostadas provide a nice counterbalance to the delicate fish. Ensure the fish pieces are small so that they cure quickly, or adjust the curing time for larger pieces. Use only fresh fish purchased on the day of serving and ensure you have all the ingredients ready before you cure the fish.

Scallop ceviche (ceviche de vieiras)

On the Mexican coast, where both fresh seafood and limes are plentiful, ceviche is popular way to have a simple meal. While curing seafood with the acid of lime juice is a method used the world over, the Mexican addition of avocado adds a wonderful creaminess to the dish that makes it even more special.