Sazón, a sweet little restaurant in the heart of Roseland, opened on Sebastopol Road in the summer of 2010, bringing traditional and innovative Peruvian cuisine to Sonoma County.
Among its most popular selections is ceviche, with six versions on the standard menus and others offered now and then as specials.
Ceviche in its many iterations is ubiquitous throughout the coastal regions of Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and the South Pacific.
Simply put, it is fish or shellfish marinated in citrus juice and spices. The type of fish, the way it is cut, the specific citrus and various seasonings and its garnishes and accompaniments vary widely from region to region, but the core ingredients of fish and acid remain the same.
In the U.S., we are most familiar with Mexican-style ceviche, which is typically made with chopped white fish marinated in lime juice for several hours, tossed with pico de gallo and served atop a crisp corn tortilla, for a ceviche tostada.
Ceviche is often referred to as raw fish but that’s not quite accurate. Acid denatures protein, just as heat does, though there are a few differences.
Heat kills bacteria and other interlopers but citrus mostly does not, thus ceviche often comes with health warnings, especially for pregnant women and anyone with a compromised immune system.
The best hedges against any problems are to use only the very freshest fish from a reliable fish monger and to slice it paper thin, which also helps anyone who may be squeamish about the taste or texture of raw fish.
Sazón’s ceviche is made to order and not prepared in advance or marinated overnight, as recipes for home cooks often instruct.
“Ceviche is marinated overnight only when the fish is thickly cut,” explained José Navarro, chef and co-owner of Sazón (1129 Sebastopol Road, Santa Rosa.)
For fish, he primarily uses farmed tilapia. “I like the texture,” he said. “But rock cod is good, too, and halibut is the best.”
The restaurant’s most popular ceviches are the Clásico, the simplest version made of very thinly sliced tilapia; and the Mixto, which includes prawns, scallops, clams and squid, all of which are blanched, in addition to tilapia.
Both are seasoned with rocoto, a Peruvian chile similar to cayenne; and Leche de Tigre, fish fumet spiked with lime juice, fresh ginger and a bit of evaporated milk.
The Clásico is served with plantain chips, the Mixto with Cuzco corn and sweet potato. Cuzco is giant corn, which must be boiled to be edible; it is often confused with hominy, though it is an entirely different variety, with ears that Navarro described as enormous.
Other selections include Ceviche Verde, with mussels, clams, tilapia and puréed cilantro; Ceviche Mango, with prawns and mango purée; Ahi Ceviche Nikei, with ahi tuna, jalapeños and avocado; Copitos de Peruvian Blue Tilapia, with ginger, celery and parsley; and Jalea de Marisco, made of fried calamari, shrimp and fish and served with fried yuca and a selection of house-made salsas and sauces, including Rocoto Aioli.
Among the off-menu, special ceviches is Ceviche de Leche de Tigre con Jalea, presented dramatically in an over-sized Margarita glass filled with the special ceviche and topped with fried calamari.
José Navarro’s recipes are inspired by his early years growing up in Lima, Peru, where he was born, and in Piura, a northwestern city near the Ecuadorian border. Both countries vie for the title of “Birthplace of Ceviche” so you could say that Navarro has been inspired by the best of both worlds.