"This is the South American Soochee" my host said emphatically, maybe a bit too emphatically.
By now I new better than answering the wild statement, or than correcting the pronunciation of the word; I was happy to have recognized the "soochee" immediately. Spanish doesn’t have a "sh" sound; most South Americans have troubles pronouncing it. "It’s like silencing somebody" I tried to explain in an occasion. I was looked at with disbelief and my listener refused to even attempt pronouncing the obscene sound; I’ve seen this attitude often in the context of pronouncing foreign words, but can’t still explain it. Since the closest Spanish sound to "sh" is "ch" (like in "chalk"), "sushi" becomes something like "soochee," with no pause between the syllables; Spanish is spoken with no stops as if they had no time. Probably that’s to balance up the otherwise over-relaxed attitude.
"The Japanese learned it from us!" Suddenly I was reminded that unfortunately I wasn’t alone.
"How do you know? Did you ever see sushi?" I ventured.
"I don’t need to see soochee, we have ceviche!" Surprisingly, a flag wasn’t pulled out of the pocket to emphasize the fervent and inexplicable nationalism.
Ceviche, the Dish
This wasn’t the only linguistic problem in the preparation of this article. "Ceviche" itself is an odd word; it appears also as "cebiche" and "seviche," providing an easy mnemonic on Spanish non-phonetic nature. The word is of unclear origin, thus there isn’t any agreed spelling. Ceviche, cebiche, sushi, soochi. Bolivia, Volibia.
Ceviche is a dish made from fresh raw fish marinated in lemon and spiced with chilli; it must be prepared fresh to avoid the potential for food poisoning, specifically of cholera. The dish originated in Peru during colonial times. Back then, Bolivia was such a region of Peru and was called Alto Peru. Even now, the cultures of both countries are essentially identical. As such, it is not completely surprising that a coastal dish migrated up and reached four kilometers above the Pacific Ocean.
Ceviche, the Establishment
I review here the ceviche prepared by "Ceviche," the same central establishment used for the Ispi entry in this journal. The point is that this is a delicate dish with a high potential for undesired contaminations. Enjoying it in a trustworthy establishment with a high turnover is important.
Surprisingly, I was recognized despite having returned after almost a week. It was just another reminder of how foreign – and thus easy to identify – I look here. While waiting for the ceviche, the smiling attendant put a small bowl of ispi in front of me as a courtesy snack.
Soon the watery dish was placed in front of me. I had ordered the "mixto" option, which adds octopus slices to the regular dish. I was a bit worried about the octopus since it had made all the way up from the ocean, but it turned out it was fresh. It had obviously arrived by truck and spared the effort of crawling up to the plateau. The other fish didn’t worry me at all since it was trout grown locally at the Titicaca Lake. Being the most popular local fish, I have reviewed its fried version in Bolivian Fish. Before I managed to taste the soup, the attendant was back at the table with a plastic bag full of bread slices. I was supposed to pick a slice out of the bag.
The specific preparation method change the taste of the meat, due to changes caused to the molecular structure of the proteins by the citrus acid, thus even the trout didn’t taste similar to its usual serving. The octopus was a bit chewy and the trout seemed angry at the cooking method, but overall they were tasty. Of course, an integral part of this experience is the marinade, which wasn’t too acidic here. It wasn’t spicy at all, since the chopped chilies were put next to the dish, so that the diner can add them as per his preferences.
The ceviche included also two other key ingredients: onions and yams. The onions were fresh and crunchy. The yam was remarkable. The first time I saw an Altiplano yam I was impressed. Actually there are hundreds of tubers here, and each one appears in several varieties, making for visitors from other parts a bit difficult to identify the items upon first sight. Yams – called here "camote" – have a bright orange meat and are very tasty and sweet. Their inclusion in the ceviche was cataclysmic in its consequences. It created the first truly balanced dish I tried here. Sweet and sour, crunchy and soft, liquid and meaty, all in one. For a moment I imagined myself in Asia.
Shortly after, I attempted to pay. It cost 14 BOB ($2 as of March 2011).
"Don’t you want the soup?" I was asked with a smile. The word used was "caldo" meaning a clear soup; Bolivians use the term "sopa" to denote the thick soups served as first course during their lunch. Soon, a very hot serving of a delightfully fishy soup warmed me up in that rainy and cold Altiplano morning.