The summer of 1969 my best friend, Susan, and I decided to take a vacation to what was at that time a remote part of Mexico: Isla Mujeres, off the Yucatan peninsula. We had already experienced life away from home that year as college students in Houston. Working as waitresses to help defray our college expenses, we had heard about the island from other students who worked with us. So, on a shoestring budget, we embarked on our trip. Starting out in our hometown, Laredo, we set off on trains and buses, stopping in Monterrey, Mexico City and Merida. We finally made it to Puerto Juarez where we took a ferry to Isla Mujeres. We were two 19-year-olds, mesmerized as we arrived by the sight of white, powdery sand, crystalline water and the smell of the sea. We played like children along the water’s edge with a kaleidoscope of fish that surrounded us.
Walking along the beach one day, an old fisherman approached us. I still remember his name: Tacho. For a modest fee, Tacho offered to take us snorkeling. We accepted and found ourselves trying to dive for conch without much success because we couldn’t hold our breath long enough. But the object of our desire lay tantalizingly clear below us, as we could see all the way to the bottom. For Tacho, age was not an obstacle. He effortlessly dived and came up with conch. Then, he took us to another side of the island where he prepared a conch ceviche with the tomatoes, red onions, lime, serrano pepper and cilantro that he had brought along. Now, this was the first time either Susan or I had eaten real ceviche and it was nothing like the ceviche back in Laredo. The ceviche back home consisted of tired, microscopic shrimp in a cocktail glass, doused with a little ketchup and lime juice. Nothing like the real thing I discovered on the beach that day…Funny how a song can resurrect such long-ago memories. Songs like Harry Nilsson’s Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me remind me of the innocence of those years, of my youth and of that trip.
Nowadays, I wonder about that clear water, about the living coral. I wonder about the turtles and the fish that swam at our side. I wonder whatever became of Tacho.
Anyway, this is how I’ve made ceviche for friends ever since then, although I always use tilapia or shrimp since conch is not widely available on the East Coast.
- 2 or 3 filets of tilapia
- 1 quart of cherry tomatoes cut in half or 1 large, ripe tomato, chopped
- 1 medium sized red onion, chopped
- 1 serrano pepper
- Sea salt
- 10 limes
- About 1 cup (or more) or cilantro, washed, dried, and chopped roughly
- Chop the tilapia into little pieces and put into a bowl where you will squeeze all the limes and add salt to taste.
- Let it sit for ½ hour.
- Add the chopped tomato, onion, finely minced pepper, and cilantro
- Toss and serve in small bowls.
- Taste for salt.