When it comes to Florida cuisine, the conversation starts with Norman Van Aken. The chef and author was among the first to realize the tropical food goldmine of the region, and his restaurants and cookbooks have had a huge influence. Now the chef/owner of Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton, Grande Lakes, Orlando and Director of Restaurants at Miami Culinary Institute, Van Aken is hard at work on his next book, My Key West Kitchen, due out in fall 2012. Each week, he contributes to Food Republic with his “Word On Food.” He’s on Twitter: @normanvanaken.
I first tasted the ceviche-like dish called conch salad in Key West in the mid-’70s, as I was engaged in the hectic and sometimes insane activity of opening a new restaurant. It was my first shot at being the head chef, and my days were filled with a mixture of terror and joy.
On that fateful summer day, I felt a large shadow slowly obscure the blazing tropical light that spilled through the kitchen screen door. It was like when you’re in the ocean skin-diving and a very large fish swims behind you. Hello? Then came this voice. It was a booming bass voice, but sing-song even, with Bahamian inflections.
“Hey. Hey. I’m Frank, The Conch Salad Man. I’ll sell you the world’s best conch salad.”
Without knocking, he pushed open the screen door and came in holding a big white pickle bucket brimming with his conch salad. With a paper cup, he scooped some up for me to try. I tipped back a mixture of finely diced conch, tomatoes, red onions, scotch bonnets, bell peppers, celery, citrus juices and herbs. The flavors of the sea were in there too. I really began to look at him now.
His heavy-framed, black, “Buddy Holly” like, saltwater-stained glasses were held on with a loop of fishing line. His hands were thick, meaty and marked from heavy labor. He wore canvas shoes, military-issue pants and a white, v-neck T-shirt. A long, heavy gold chain around his neck was his only adornment. It drew attention to the nasty scar that ringed his collarbones.
When he scooped out more for each of my cooks and waiters working in the kitchen that day, I realized that he didn’t know I was the Chef. I thought, “I can make my own damn conch salad!” (And I did.) Yet as I came to know Frank over the next few months in the small town — he sold his conch salad at the famed Key West Sunset every night — I understood that this possibility would have never occurred to him. He had 1,000 percent confidence that, once a person tasted his conch salad, that person would accept none other.
Controversies about the pride in and provenance of certain dishes are part of the spice of life of any cuisine. For example, a spirited discussion revolves around the origin of conch salad’s cousin ceviche (also spelled cebiche). This seafood salad, made of raw fish or shellfish marinated in sour fruit juices and laced with raw onion rings and hot peppers, is one of the many gifts ancient Peru bestowed on New World cuisine. I’ve heard that ceviche was invented so that an Incan emperor could enjoy his fresh fish by having it first marinated in tombo fruit, then carried by relays of chasquis (runners) up to his citadel high in the Andean city of Cusco.
But maybe ceviche originated with Polynesian voyagers, crossing on wind-driven reed rafts over the Pacific to pre-Columbian Peru, who might have introduced the notion of eating marinated raw fish; the custom was, after all, common in their island homes. Modern-day Peruvian food scholar Juan José Vega, who studies the influence on Peruvian cuisine of the Moorish slave cooks who had arrived with the Spanish nobility in the 16th Century, says there is a yet another story to consider. The Moor-influenced cooks introduced a dish called Sei-vech, made of fish or meat marinated in the juice of Ceuta lemons, which they brought with them from North Africa and planted in the New World.
Regardless of all of the theories; a dish of Peruvian ceviche, whether of Pacific bass, shrimp, black clam or a mixture of all, is a cool yet zesty delicacy on a hot day at the beach. And washed down with an ice-cold beer, it is South America’s number one cure for treating a hangover or stimulating more playful times…
Working with Peruvians and visiting their markets and restaurants has given me a very different understanding of the delicacy and evanescent characteristics of a properly made ceviche. I used to think it should be made the night before it was eaten. But for the last number of years I now think of it more like sashimi. So maybe the Japanese are to be thanked as well.
More raw fish on Food Republic: