We eat a lot of ceviche in Belize, and I do mean a lot. Even still, I love ordering ceviche when traveling throughout parts of Mexico as well. However, I keep noticing aguachile popping up more and more on local menus in Mexico, and they are always in a different section than the ceviches. Other than cucumber, which some ceviches have in Belize, I wasn’t quite sure what definitively made one an aguachile versus a ceviche.
Recently, I was having lunch with local friends in a village town near the border of Mexico and Belize, and they ordered a shrimp aguachile.
“So, what is the difference between an aguachile and a ceviche?” I asked.
They all looked at me with a blank stare and said, “no idea, but it sure tastes good” and went back to drinking their Mexican beers. LOL
Some quick sleuthing and talking to a couple more food-obsessed friends provided me with a more definitive answer on the differences.
Ceviche in Belize and Mexico
If you’re aren’t familiar with ceviche, or never tried one on your travels, it’s important to understand what ceviche is first.
What is Ceviche?
Ceviche (typically pronounced seh-VEE-chay) is basically seafood marinated in citrus juice, which “cooks” it. It’s commonly found along coastal parts of Latin America and in some Caribbean nations as well. Popular seafood options include shrimp, lobster, conch, octopus, maimula (often called horse conch), squid, snapper, and more, depending on where you’re traveling. Head further down and into Latin America and you’ll find ceviches there have a variety of different ingredients like corn or sweet potato.
Other common ingredients include onions, tomatoes, and cilantro. And, kudos to the restaurants in Mexico that add avocado to their ceviches. Some restaurants incorporate chilies directly into the ceviche, or place them on the side. And, when you’re talking about habanero, I’m all for placing them on the side!
My favorite time of in Belize is when conch is in season, typically October through June, when you can get a mixed ceviche with conch, shrimp, and octopus to share with a group of friends. One of my long-time favorites is from El Divino Restaurant at Banana Beach Resort on Ambergris Caye, because it’s always fresh and, strange as it may sound to some, they put green olives in theirs. I used to get it at least once or twice every year when I stayed next door as a tourist, and it was always one of my favorite things to eat. We have a number of excellent options for ceviche on the island, so I tend to mix it up some, but I always go back to my long-time favorite at least once a month or so.
How Ceviche is “Cooked”
Some people have a hard time wrapping their head around the idea of seafood being “cooked” in citrus juice, because there is an obvious lack of heat. Basically, heat and citric acid both work in a chemical process known as denaturation. During denaturation, hydrogen bonds in the proteins are altered from their original state and are free to interact with other chemicals. Another example of denaturing proteins is when you cook an egg and it changes from the transparent fluid to an opaque solid. So, while no heat is applied, the end result is the same, with one important caveat. While technically not raw, denaturing proteins doesn’t rid them of bacteria like cooking with heat does, so it’s important to only eat ceviche that is made with the freshest seafood or the risk of getting sick is still a valid concern.
History of Ceviche
Many people associate ceviche with Mexico and Central America, but there are several theories on where it originated. You may see it spelled seviche or cebiche as well, depending where you are in the world.
One theory is it developed back during the Inca Empire in Peru, when fish were marinated with a local fermented beverage. It’s believed that they switched to citrus fruit after it was introduced by Spanish colonists. Another local civilization in Peru has documented history of ceviche. The Moche inhabited the coast and used fermented juice from local bananas and passionfruit, adding aji pepper.
SUMAQ has a great in-depth article all about the origins of ceviche in Peru for those who want to dig deeper and learn more. Interesting note, ceviche was not highly popular for several centuries, as it was considered to be a food for the “underclass,” but a strange set of circumstances changed all that. When the Sino-Japanese war broke out, a wave of Japanese migrants settled in Peru to try farming there. With seafood being a key element in the Japanese diet, it’s not surprising that Peruvian cuisine began showing Asian influences.
Other theories place its origins in places anywhere from Central America all the way to the South Pacific. While traveling through French Polynesia a few years ago, I tried their local “ceviche,” which is called poisson cru. It’s basically tuna marinated in lime and coconut milk – super fresh and super refreshing!
As its name implies, aguachile basically translates to “chili water,” and it is a much spicier version of ceviche, which I can attest to firsthand.
Aguachile is also pretty much limited to Mexico itself, reportedly originating in the Sinaloa region. The types of chilies used in can vary, but I’ve read that chiltepines, local to Sinaloa, are one of the primary varieties. Other popular options include serrano and jalapeño peppers.
In general, the most common type of aguachile is with shrimp, cucumber, onion, and lime juice. The chilies are usually blended with water to create the marinade. One major difference with ceviche versus aguachile is said to be the time it marinates. With ceviche, the seafood marinates in the lime juice for at least 15-20 minutes. Aguachiles are tossed in the lime and pretty much served right away.
Appearance wise, the aguachiles I’ve tried are usually plated with pieces of cucumber around the side and the shrimp and onions in the middle. It typically has slices of avocado as well – the fattiness is great for offsetting the heat from the chilies.
So, which is better?
They are really very similar, but it really comes down to what you can handle spice wise. The first aguachile I had in Tulum was not too bad, but the last one in Chetumal, WOW! I had to let the men devour that one and I stuck to the more mild appetizers as my mouth was on fire for a good 10 minutes after!
Have you tried either ceviche and/or aguachiles? Which is your favorite?
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