Monday, May 28, 2007

Top Secret Ceviche

ISLA MUJERES, MEXICO— The next time I gripe about the summer heat in Mississippi, I will try to remember Mexico at noon, in May.

Business took me to the Yucatan Peninsula, and the Easternmost point of Mexico, an island on the Caribbean Sea— Isla Mujeres. The island is surrounded by clear, turquoise water with— what one person described as— 200-foot vertical visibility. The North beach of the island is where the Corona commercials are filmed and it is easy to understand why the locale was such a good fit for the beach-oriented beer company.

Two nights at a small, eight-room, Zen-like hotel, wasn’t enough to slow my system down to island speed, but the restaurant inside Casa de los Suenos served a ceviche good enough to warrant— if not a move to the island— several visits per year.

The dish was well-known on the island. When we told the taxi driver where we were staying, he said, “try their ceviche.” The hotel’s clerk talked about the ceviche, the man who showed us to our room and gave us a tour of the property told us about the ceviche, and a British couple that we met in town told us about the hotel’s ceviche. All recommendations were unsolicited.

While dining in the restaurant that evening, I did what I always do and asked the server what he recommended. It was no surprise when his response was, “our ceviche is the best.” When that many people recommend a dish, there are two directions the meal can go: It can live up to its pre-billing, or it can be a total letdown.

I am glad to report that the Casa de los Suenos ceviche exceeded its advance billing.

The hotel’s restaurant—The Alhambra— belied its name. “Alhambra” in Spanish means fortress. The restaurant Alhambra at Casa de los Suenos was anything but. Located under a high-pitched thatched roof, open on three sides with salt-air breezes blowing off of the Bay of Mujeres and the sun setting over Cancun in the distance, the restaurant— like the hotel— was serene and peaceful.

Ceviche is a cold, marinated, seafood salad that is cooked without heat using citrus. The citric acid in the fruit denatures the proteins in the seafood which cooks, or pickles, the dish. The mixture only marinates for 30 minutes and is a perfect meal in hot weather, typically served with some type of chip or bread.

The ceviche at Casa de los Suenos was indeed the best I have ever eaten— by a long shot.

I asked the waiter what made it so good and he replied that it was “just a hint of freshly squeezed orange juice.” I tasted lime, cilantro, and onion, but no orange.

The next day while talking to one of the hotel employees he said that it was key limes that made the ceviche stand out from all of the others. Yet another employee talked of a touch of imported olive oil.

The recipe was said to be a “hotel secret” But for a “secret” there were a whole lot of people offering their opinions. My guess is that it’s a slight combination of all of the above.

When I asked the hotel manager for the actual recipe he returned a few hours later with a small piece of hotel stationery. On it— typed and centered— were the words: “Ceviche Wayak, fresh fish, shrimp, avocado, onion, tomatoe (sic, the Quayle spelling), cucumber, olive, lemon, pepper, and salt.” There were no measurements or procedures, just ingredients. Olive oil, Key limes, orange juice, and cilantro were nowhere to be found.

I don’t speak Spanish, so my request might have been lost in translation. If I had to guess I would probably say that there is no recipe. The chef, or chefs, there were two different chefs on two different nights, probably eyeballs the mixture. The ceviche of the first night was slightly better than the ceviche of the second night. Though the second night’s version was still better than any I have eaten.

Many chefs give out recipes freely; others guard them with great secrecy. I used to be of the latter variety, but it’s hard to be in the cookbook-writing business and not give away recipes.

When I return home, I will begin experimenting with a new ceviche recipe using the Alhambra’s version as inspiration. Once completed, I know it will be one that I will prepare all summer and for many summers to come. Now if I could just figure out a way to recreate those salt-air breezes.

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