Cuisine – Sensational starter

One of the most popular starters you will find on the menus of modern New Zealand restaurants is ceviche. It’s a dish prepared with the freshest of fish, dressed with salt and lemon and garnished with thoughtfully added herbs, vegetables and spices. For years, many diners have shunned raw fish dishes, but like many food trends, chefs have taken to the idea and produce some stunning combinations. And, as with most trends, it’s not taken long for the idea to catch on and find its way into our own kitchens.

I grew up with a mother of Tongan descent, frequently eating a truly delicious traditional Pacific Island style raw fish dish, where Mum marinated very fresh fish in plenty of lemon juice and salt for an hour or two and then discarded most of the liquid and generously coated it all in freshly grated coconut milk, adding finely chopped parsley and black pepper. My father would scrape the coconuts and the milk was wrung out from this grated coconut, through fine muslin, into a bowl. That dish remains a favourite, always appearing at any family gathering.

Other cultures around the world use the seafood found on their coastlines to make similar dishes, although the popular variations of South American ceviche are what diners are most likely to spot in good restaurants here. The acid of lemons and limes reacts with the fish to almost ‘cook’ it, to appease those who are a bit squeamish about eating raw fish. Ceviche can also go under the guise of crudo, sashimi, carpaccio, gravlax, kokoda and tartare, and is the main ingredient of the growing popular Hawaiian poke bowls.

Two of the golden rules for making ceviche at home are to use the very freshest of fish, and to have a super sharp knife so you cut very even thin slices. To do this, it’s essential the fish is ice-cold from the fridge so it holds up as you cut, rather than turning into ragged mushy slices. Anyone who is lucky enough to get out and catch fish should give this a go. We find the best species to use of fish caught in the gulf are trevally, kahawai and kingfish, as their firmer texture is perfect. Snapper is the most commonly caught fish in our region and it also makes for great ceviche although as a softer fish, it is quite hard to make perfect slices.

For the shopper, look for thicker fillets, and make sure they are really glistening, as fish tends to become dull and flabby as it ages. You don’t really need a lot of fish to serve up, as a little goes a long way. And if you’re a salmon lover you will find that makes colourful tasty ceviche. It’s no accident that the masters of fish, the Japanese chefs always have slices of salmon, dressed with a little soy sauce on their sashimi menus.

I whipped up today’s recipe in about 15 minutes. It was local-caught kingfish but any really fresh fish can be substituted. Some other ideas for garnish include finely grated raw vegetables like carrot or beetroot, thin slices of onion or shallot, diced fruit like orange or apple, favourite spice mixes and soft herbs like chives or fennel and dill fresh from the garden. But don’t get carried away and over-garnish, as the fresh fish must always be the star feature of the dish.

Kingfish ceviche with lemon, shaved fennel and dill

300g fresh kingfish (or any other fresh fish)
1-2 lemons, juice and finely grated zest
1 tsp flaky sea salt crystals
2 tbsp lemon-infused extra virgin olive oil
Half a small fennel bulb
1 tbsp finely chopped dill
1 tsp pink peppercorns

Slice the cold fish thinly and evenly with a very sharp knife and lay the slices on a serving plate, slightly overlapping as you work. Squeeze the lemon juice over the fish and scatter the salt over. Grate the lemon and add this zest to the dish.

Use a mandolin if you have one to shave the fennel very thinly, and place this evenly on top of the fish. (Otherwise try to cut the fennel paper thin for the best effect.)

Drizzle the olive oil over and sprinkle a few peppercorns and the chopped dill to finish.

You can also add finely grated black pepper or use a scattering of Japanese shichimi togarashi pepper to spice the dish up a little.

Refrigerate until needed and serve with thin slices of fresh baguette.

Serves 4 with drinks, or can be scaled up easily.