According to my Italian-American grandmother, it’s tradition to eat seven types of seafood on Christmas Eve, the feast of the seven fishes. This year on Christmas Eve I had a typical holiday meal prepared by my mom in Albany, New York, which did not include any seafood. So, I honored the Italian seafood tradition in a small way later in the week. A few days ago on a trip to New Hampshire I ate fried haddock for dinner and clam chowder the next morning for brunch. Two types of seafood in less than twelve hours and a couple of days after Christmas? A little weak in comparison to consuming at least seven sea critters in one sitting (although my friends thought I was pretty tough stomached/crazy for eating clam chowder so early in the day). It was not the most exact replica of the feast of the seven fishes. However, the Ecuadorian dish of ceviche could have sufficed.
Imagine a small boat in the Pacific Ocean on a hot, sunny day and sitting next to you is the human being version of the Muppet character, the Swedish Chef. There you have the setting for the best ceviche of my life. This human was actually Swedish, and he was vacationing with his wife. I made this encounter with ceviche and the Swedish Chef in Puerto Lopez, a fishing village on the coast of Ecuador.
Instead of taking an expensive trip to the Galapagos Islands, three friends and I planned a sea-side vacation nearby. My friends and I traveled by bus from Quito to Puerto Lopez and arrived in the afternoon. After securing housing for the night at a hostel, we set out to arrange a boat trip for the next day. The four of us walked down a quiet dirt street that ran parallel to the beach for no more than a few minutes before we were approached by a woman. She told us that her family ran boat tours. Perfect! We checked the cost and agenda of the trip with her and then agreed to return the next day for our boat excursion.
Early the next morning we arrived, handed over our money, and the trip orchestrator, who was the husband of the woman we’d meet the afternoon before, set out to buy supplies for the day. After a short while, he was back with bags, and we all got in the boat. The boat had a small outboard motor and a blue-striped plastic tarp awning, the pattern and material of which was ubiquitous in Ecuador. The boat was filled with two American and two European university students, a Swedish couple, and three generations of Puerto Lopez-ians. The youngest were outfitted with life-preservers, the granddaughter in bright orange, and the grandson in a more rustic life-vest constructed from two empty plastic gallon milk jugs and rope.
After sailing some distance from the shore an island came into view. The later appearance of ceviche was still unknown to any of us, but we sailed closer and saw dozens of large birds perched on the rocky side of the island. The birds had the most remarkably Colgate-blue colored feet. Our guides explained to us that they were blue-footed boobies! I had thought blue-footed boobies were extinct.
Upon completing our Darwinian photo op of these evolutionary oddities on an island, we continued with the plans that our guides had made for our day. First on the agenda was fishing, followed by snorkeling. Our fishing efforts were quite fruitful, and the star catch of the day was a blowfish.
After lounging and fishing it was time to get in the water. The grandpa of the Ecuadorian family was going to lead us on this trip, and he stripped down to his snorkeling attire, which happened to be a pair of tighty-whities. I am not sure if this is standard garb for the occasion in Puerto Lopez. Regardless, we all got in the ocean, breathing from tubes that reached above water and looking out through plastic goggles. We floated at the water’s surface, moving closer to the schools of fish below and the sea life on sandy ocean floor and then back up and further away from the creatures with each swell of the sea. Among the wildlife, we saw a sea snake and enjoyed the more comforting experience of following a friendly sea turtle.
After our eye-full in the ocean water and an hour of swimming around, we hauled ourselves back onto the boat, and there was ceviche! For lunch, all the edible critters that had just been caught through our fishing endeavors were beautifully prepared by our guides into ceviche, a dish of fresh raw fish marinated in citrus juices. We each had a bowl full of delicate pieces of white fish, octopus, tomatoes, red onions, cilantro, and garlic soaked in lemon juice and salt. After the sun, and the sea, and the Swedish accent, my appetite was gargantuan. The ceviche was delicious.
Not only did I encounter on the boat trip something that I thought had ceased to exist on this planet, the blue footed booby, but I also encountered something that I never knew existed at all on any planet, ceviche. And yes I loved it, and yes I ate it again and again in the coastal villages I visited in Ecuador. At the end of the trip, after eating that fresh fish out on the open water and swimming to an island full of pelicans, I disembarked the boat very ungracefully on sea-legs, walked to shore.