Ceviche is a simple dish. All you need is some raw fish, onions, chili flakes, corn and a few splashes of lemon or lime juice. It can be found all over South America, but the best isn’t served on fancy china or eaten with silverware. No, it is heaped onto a polystyrene plate by Isabella Pilar, who has been running her street stall on the outskirts of the Miraflores Market in Lima most of her life.
It’s good food with good company as her son Frank Pilar draws the crowds in with his beguiling tales of football matches gone wrong. All he wants to talk about is England’s World Cup chances*. “Belgium. Tunisia. Panama. It’s a hard group, but you should make it through.”
Isabella isn’t interested in the football or her son’s stagnated English. “He should have studied more,” she says, lightly squeezing the limes to test their ripeness. “He doesn’t belong at the market.
“I started as a child, watching my mum and then I took over when she became too old,” she says, sprinkling sliced onion onto a polystyrene plate and drizzling juice from the chosen lime on top. “My dad and my husband never come to the market.”
Dedicated to her craft, Isabella talks about the fish. “Chile does good ceviche, Bolivia, no. Argentina, no.” She narrows her eyes. “Argentina think they do good ceviche, but it is rubbish.” She smiles when I agree. “Good. You should put your camera away.”
This is where my mother started and where I will finish
The camera is resting on the side of the table and she fears it will provoke pickpockets as the market fills up. “She’s a mother first,” mutters Frank. She passes me the square plate and I start eating with a plastic fork. Isabella has put two types of corn on my plate — the traditional crispy pellets and some that have barely seen any heat. The twist complements the onion and fish.
“It’s something extra special,” explains Frank.
The stall starts filling up. The other street vendors visit Isabella during their quick lunch breaks. The usual greeting of multiple cheek kisses occurs, she makes the ceviche and they leave. A young woman sits down and complains about her sisters. Isabella listens while she prepares the ceviche. Once the girl is finished, Isabella gives out life advice.
“I’m old friends of her mothers. She lives near me in Barranca,” says Isabella. The young woman says goodbye, another flurry of kisses happens and she returns to her stall selling upmarket cheese.
Barranca is the grungy neighbour to Miraflores’ trendy high rises. She travels from there every day just to sell fish. It isn’t a long journey, 30 minutes by foot, but can be a hassle with all the ingredients and equipment. “I can’t move closer. This is where my mother started and where I will finish.”
I put the last slice of fish into my mouth, leaving the juicy remains, and go to put the plate into the bin. Isabella sticks her arm out to stop me. “It’s only lemon juice.” I put the corner of my plate to mouth and tip. Isabella smiles; she is a mother to all.
*England made the semi-finals and were knocked out by Croatia