Soft music fills the ground floor of the restaurant whose doors are usually closed at this hour. Bejewelled and beautifully manicured fingers help themselves to glasses of white and red sangria. Not everyone’s all dressed up though. The men present are decidedly casual and one young lady has even teamed a soft pink kurti with jeans and a pair of trainers. This motley group isn’t here for a private party after all. They’ve signed up for a cooking class.
Far removed from the classes of yesteryear, this chic session is conducted by top chef Rahul Akerkar in Indigo’s canopied, alfresco area in Colaba. Wooden chairs have been arranged in concentric arcs on the podium so every seat affords a clear view of the master chef in action. But there’s also a spare cooking station at the fore, so volunteers may replicate Akerkar’s moves. The first two items (of seven) in the day’s list are a Trio of Tartar, which Akerkar will prepare with beef tenderloin, beetroot and tuna, and Seafood Ceviche (pronounced sa-vee-chay) for which he’ll use snapper, salmon, mussels, shrimps and squid.
Who needs a stove?
The list of recipes for today’s AD-studio class was announced beforehand, yet the session is full, and volunteers stream towards the cooking station, clearly comfortable with handling and sampling both raw-meat preparations. Through his demonstration however, Akerkar points out, “The fish macerates in the citric acid of the lemon juice so it’s not really raw.” He tilts the metal bowl so his students can see the transformation. The acid appears to have cooked the fish, almost. We sample the dish; it has a fantastic, delicate citrus flavour, but it doesn’t taste raw at all.
“Indian diners enjoy sushi and sashimi,” Akerkar tells us when we ask if he’s surprised by Mumbai’s willingness to experiment with cuisines (and the visibly diminished levels of squeamishness). “In fact, I have been serving ceviche at Indigo for years, on and off. It’s a very popular dish.” Explaining why he elected to share the recipe now, Akerkar says, “It’s a great party dish...something people would want to make and serve guests. Besides, it’s a fresh dish, light and easy to make.”
Meet sushi’s sister
At Salt Water Cafe, the dish sometimes features on the list of specials (Rs 350, depending on the fish used). But Gresham Fernandes, executive chef, Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality observed, “Diners are initially hesitant to sample raw fish, but when servers draw a parallel to sushi, they’re more willing to give it a shot.
” Restaurateur, Farrokh Khambata, on the other hand, observed that the Tuna Ceviche (Rs 900) at his Mediterranean and Spanish cuisine restaurant, Amadeus, is, “quite popular.” Khambata introduced this a year ago, from the very launch of the restaurant. Perhaps Salt Water Cafe regulars will warm to the cold fish in time too.
Fernandes tells us the Bandra restaurant first introduced the dish just about three months ago, and admits the recipe isn’t fixed. “We use different fish, depending on availability as freshness is paramount.”
Chef Paul Kinny, executive chef, InterContinental too stresses on the importance of using high quality, fresh fish, and adds, “Ideally, opt for a tender flaky fish. I wouldn’t recommend using Indian fish because of the texture but salmon, tuna, hamachi and seabass work well in ceviche. Scallops can also be used.”
An ever-evolving recipe
The Yellowfin Tuna Ceviche at Koh (Rs 895 plus taxes) is also extremely popular, Kinny confirms. “We flatten the fish so it’s paper thin,” he explains, emphasising the importance of flavours in the recipe.
“We use a mint dressing, a combination of mint, lime juice, chilli powder and brown onions,” Kinny offers. Explaining why a Peruvian dish features on celebrated chef Ian Kittichai’s menu for the Thai restaurant, he says, “Koh offers contemporary Thai cuisine so we source the best ingredients and treat them with flavours that are traditionally Thai.
” He also adds, “Ceviche is now a worldwide phenomenon. Japanese cuisine was once the craze, but this dish is now at the forefront with speciality Cevicherias mushrooming in New York and London over the past year. Every popular restaurant across the globe is now introducing some ceviche variant or the other.”
Around the world
It’s true. An article in The Telegraph, UK, lists the Peruvian speciality as one of the top 10 food trends of 2012, and in July this year, Chef Virgilio Martinez, who was previously with the Ritz, opened Lima, his own Peruvian restaurant, in central London. Similar stories appear in the US papers.
Just a month after the launch of his cevicheria, award-winning chef, Samuel Gorenstein, left his position as executive chef of The Raleigh Hotel to dedicate his time to his 240-square foot ceviche restaurant. In April this year, Gorenstein told reporters, “The success and launch of My ceviche in South Beach has demanded more of my time than anticipated.” Another Miami cevicheria, CVI.CHE 105, even hosted a ceviche art photo contest this month.
Yet here, Akerkar hasn’t made up his mind about whether he will feature the Peruvian national dish on Indigo’s new antipasti menu. “The new small-plates menu will include fifteen dishes, but I’m not sure ceviche will feature on it,” he says. His reasons are obvious. The tuna component of the Trio of Tartar, which has made the final cut, may be somewhat similar with its lemon juice-rice wine dressing.
Offering one possible reason for the sudden popularity of the fish dish, Fernandes, says, “The grain Quinoa became popular recently, and with it, there’s also been an increased demand for jowar and bajra. Super foods are catching on; nutrition and health are top priorities and dishes like ceviche offer this: minimum cooking, maximum nutritive benefits.”
“Besides, Peruvian food is the in thing right now,” he adds. “Japanese cuisine had gained popularity some time ago, Asian dishes had their time in the limelight before that, and now it’s Peruvian food,” he says, sharing that the recipe is actually “very old.”
Back after 2,000 years
“Old,” is putting it lightly, in fact. Traditionally marinated in, “leche de tigre” (Spanish for tiger’s milk, a marinade connoisseurs sometimes even drink up), a combination of lime juice, salt, red onions and hot Peruvian peppers called Ají, the dish that’s typically served with cold sweet potatoes or corn-on-the-cob, is actually based on a recipe that’s several thousands of years old.
According to reports, 16th century Peruvians prepared a version of ceviche with Tumbo, a kind of passion fruit. The arrival of Spanish conquistadores led to the first variations and the introduction of lime and orange juice in the recipe. Then, in the mid 20th century, Japanese chefs, masters of raw-fish preparations, altered it further by reducing the marinating time to just minutes.
Amerindians in 16th century Peru probably never imagined their home-cooking, the Quechua tribe’s siwichi, would find a way to Mumbai kitchens, but here it is. We welcomed quinoa and we’re warming to ceviche. What’s next, we wonder.