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Adventures in a Tico Kitchen

Lauren Collins

One would think that making ceviche, rolling dough for arepas, and shooing dogs and cats out of the kitchen (all while you're trying to make arroz con pollo) doesn't sound that labor intensive - but it totally is.

However, no one can argue that catching the fish is the most work. You put in countless hours, wake up with the sun (and sometimes fish until it goes back down) because you know the next fish could be bigger than the last one.

But what should you do when your significant other succeeds in bringing home a giant fish? He or she may filet the fish with excitement and pride, and then just hand it to you in a bowl with expectation that you do something delicious with it.  


There are only so many times that I will pan fry a fish in lime juice, cumin, garlic and salt. Yes it is simple and delicious (the photo above is of a crevalle jack made that way), but after a few consecutive meals, enough is enough, I needed something new.  

Giant Needlefish Ceviche?

Ryan knows very well that I will throw anyone out of my way to get my hands on a bowl of ceviche, as ceviche is my absolute favorite food to eat when we are traveling in Costa Rica.  So of course I said to myself, as I stared at Ryan's latest giant needlefish catch, "I'll make ceviche out of this thing!"

If you've never heard of ceviche, it is a mixture of perfectly tiny little pieces of raw fish or shrimp, marinated in a lime-based juice, with perfectly tiny little pieces of pepper, onion and cilantro.  The acids in the lime "cook" the fish, and sooner or later it turns into one of the most heavenly dishes in the seafood cooking world.​

Of course making ceviche is not as easy as it looks.  I know from all of my ceviche consuming years that there is more to it than just lime juice, and how many limes does it take?  And what other flavors are added to it?  I had too many questions, and not enough limes in my kitchen, so I hit a dead end.

How To Make Ceviche

The next day we were at one of our usual hangouts, Sol Y Mar, for a few drinks.  ​Shirley, a local in town, who is the head cook in the kitchen, knows how to make one heck of a dinner.  So through my pathetic knowledge of Spanish, I managed to ask her if she could teach me how to make ceviche.  

She looked at me, probably trying to figure out if this gringa standing in front of her was serious, and then just answered me with something along the lines of "dos mañana."  I beamed with excitement and quietly screamed "OK!" and then she beamed back at me and walked away.

I had a ceviche date!

The next day shortly before "dos" I put the fish in the basket of my bike and made my way down to the restaurant.  I walked into the open air kitchen, ready to learn how to make ceviche, but little did I know what was ahead of me.

I stood behind Shirley, watching her start the process of slicing and chopping, only for her to say "Aren't you going to work?!"

So at that, I took the knife and got to work.​

Cooking Costa Rica Style

We started with the ceviche, where Shirley masterfully cut the fish from its skin so perfectly, then showed me how to butterfly the fish to then cut it into those perfect tiny pieces.  ​

All the while, I am shooing animals left and right away from me for fear that the Department of Health will come charging in - which probably doesn't even exist here, does it?

For those of you who have not traveled to other countries, it's pretty normal to see cats, dogs, lizards, chickens or whatever else meandering through the kitchens​, and most people just wear flip flops.  But don't worry, they wash their hands just like everywhere else 🙂

Once the fish is perfectly cut, she placed it in a bowl, then poured the juice of what I can only guess was 15 or so limes into the bowl.  They say that the best ratio of lime to fish is a 1/2 cup lime juice to every 1 pound of fish, but based on the fact that she doesn't know much English and I know little Spanish, I decided I better just watch and ask questions later (mainly to Google).  ​ When I later on made my own ceviche at home, I just made sure there was enough lime juice to cover the fish.

Next she added half a bottle of ginger ale (yes folks, ginger ale!) and a sprinkle of salt.  She placed a plate on top and put it to the side.  That had to sit for 15 minutes, she said.  The ginger ale is the "sweetness" to the dish.  Other recipes online call for a little orange juice or a tablespoon of sugar.  Regardless, you need to have a little sweetness to counteract the tartness of the limes.  In this case, she used ginger ale, in my own case back at home, I used a little bit of sugar.

There are also people who drain the first batch of lime juice after a few hours and replenish with a new, fresh batch of lime juice, salt, sugar and olive oil to serve.  I like this method because it creates a cleaner taste, however Shirley's quick method turned out great of course!  

So I thought we would have a nice break then and stare off into the pacific ocean in front of us, happily in silence waiting for our fish to cook in the acids.  But of course not, because Shirley does not quit.  

We were on to arepas before you could even say arepas.  ​

Arepas 101

​Arepas are similar to fried dough and are absolutely delicious with some drizzled honey.  Shirley put me to work kneading and rolling the dough.  On more than one occasion she made sure to remind me that I needed to man up and stop massaging the dough and for goodness sakes put some muscle into it!  

I rolled it with a half used bottle of merlot (which didn't drip onto the dough thankfully), cut them into triangles and off they went into the oil to get nice and crispy.  

Ceviche | Part #2

So then we were back to the ceviche, where I watched Shirley carefully fold the perfectly tiny pieces of onion, pepper and cilantro into the fish and lime mixture.  It was like an art the way she cuts and chops and minces and stirs.  

We used about a 1/2 cup onion and a 1/2 cup pepper, and half of a big bunch of cilantro, in case you try to make this at home.

To my surprise, the fish only needed to marinate with the additional ingredients another 20-30 minutes, and then we could eat!

The results were amazing, and the needlefish we used that Ryan caught was absolutely delicious.

​Upon making my own ceviche back at home, I let it sit all afternoon before serving it.  Both ways tasted delicious!

Arroz Con Pollo

So I thought again how great it was that we were finished, and how now we could enjoy our arepas before gobbling down way too much ceviche, when to my surprise she pulled out another knife and said we were making Arroz Con Pollo.

My goodness that woman can cook.  There were so many unmarked spices she added in to it, and the result was absolutely extraordinary.  

​The secret is day old cooked rice, no garlic, just onion, pepper and cilantro, plus lizano sauce (a Costa Rican staple) and some other no-name spices, with shredded cooked chicken simmered in it's own broth.  

By the end of it all, I was happily stuffed and ready to collapse.  All that chopping, slicing, mincing, mixing, kneading and rolling is hard work!  

Even though Shirley and I could barely have a small conversation, the shared love of food and cooking was ​enough, and I was so grateful for the experience.  

What do you think?

Let me know by commenting below.

  1. Making ceviche this summer!

    1. Us too for sure!

  2. Lauren,
    Ceviche recipe looks great – simple and easy to prepare
    Will try!!

    1. Yes so easy and very delicious 🙂

  3. I love Ceviche as well. I often get it at Fisherman’s View in Sandwich. I remember sending a photo to you and Ryan of a Ceviche dish I had at a great restaurant in Avignon, France. They added wasabi and it was fantastic!

    1. Oh yes adding a hot sauce to the ceviche down here is popular too. There is a place outside of town that makes their own hot sauce and it is sooooo yummy, but of course I can’t take any of it home with me, so sad! I have also had the ceviche at FV and it is delicious, but now I can make it at home myself!


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