I am always looking to expand my lineup of summer foods. When the sun is kicking my ass all day, I need snacks that will cool me off and refresh me. There will always be popsicles and watermelon, but is there a deeper joy than finding something new for the rotation? One of life’s greatest pleasures is having something fresh to
eat dream of!
As a new resident of Los Angeles, I have been learning more and more about the wide and delicious world of Mexican and Central American cuisines. One particular item that has grabbed my heart, mind, and stomach is aguachile. On days when I foolishly decide I should go on a walk around this cloudless town, it’s been aguachile that has returned my vitality.
What is aguachile?
Aguachile is raw shrimp in liquid (traditionally water, but most recipes will swap lime for water) with chiles, onion, cucumber, and sometimes fruit. It is a great combination of cool, refreshing, and spicy. It’s hot but also light, which means you can get to sweating without feeling sluggish.
This dish is sometimes grouped together with ceviche; both prioritize fresh seafood as the base protein, and in practice, both are cured in citrus. But while ceviche is a product of Peru, aguachile comes from the Mexican state of Sinaloa.
“I love how fresh the ingredients taste,” says fellow Takeout writer, cookbook author, and self-professed “aguachile fiend” Jesse Valenciana. “The balance of citrus and heat gets me going, and the texture of the shrimp is divine.”
So then, what is aguachile’s story? I spoke with Chef Claudia Sandoval, who stars in the Discovery+ Mexico/US food tour Taste of the Border and who won season 6 of MasterChef, about the Mexican dish. Sandoval, who is currently based in San Diego, is from Mazatlan, the Sinaloan city that hugs the Gulf of California on the Pacific coast. We talked about aguachile’s history, foodways, and how it’s being reinvented.
The Takeout: What are the component parts of aguachile?
Claudia Sandoval: Aguachile has to be made with shellfish—shrimp or scallops. The story goes that aguachile was made by fishermen. Because they wouldn’t have anything to cook with, they would just slice up shrimp, and because they had little packs of dried chiles, chiltepin, they would take chiltepin and grind it up and sprinkle it over this raw fish, add a little bit of water if they had any—most of the time saltwater. And that’s how they would eat it. Literally agua and chile.
Which is fascinating to me, because I would always wonder: Why would they call it aguachile if [it’s being prepared] with lime? Why not call it límonchile? And then when I dug into the history of it… as the years progressed and it became popularized, as people started serving it at restaurants, people started to add the lime juice, because that’s what they were used to with ceviche. So they switched out the water for lime and the chiltepin.
TO: To the untrained eye, it might seem as though aguachile is similar to ceviche.
CS: Aguachile is nothing like ceviche. In fact, aguachile is a lot closer to Japanese sashimi than it is in any way to Peruvian ceviche. Food historians I’ve spoken to have said that it has to do with the influx of Japanese migrants to Baja California. As they migrated south through Baja California, they ended up hitting that area of Sinaloa.
If you look at it, the very traditional way of making aguachile is, you are butterflying shrimp: Your shrimp is either butterflied completely open so that it’s super thin, or it’s in half and then laid out on a plate. The traditional and correct way to make it and serve it is completely raw. This whole idea that it’s cured in lime the way that a ceviche is, it’s completely foreign.
These new aguachiles that everyone is making now, that you see across all of these restaurants, made with all these things, it cracks me up because at the end of the day they’re still curing seafood in lime and calling it aguachile. It’s like, no, actually, that’s ceviche!
TO: What is the chiltepin used in aguachile?
CS: The chiltepin is a very small, round little chile. Think of it almost like crushed red pepper, but not really, because it has significantly more flavor, more floral aspects, a lot spicier. Crush that in with the lime and sprinkle it all over, and then that would be served to you right away. And it’s still served that way in Mazatlan and Culiacán in Sinaloa.
If you ask for a green aguachile, then that is where things start to change. There are more complex ones where they’ll add serrano or jalapeno with the lime, whether in a molcajete or more modernized with a blender.
TO: You mentioned Japanese immigration to Mexico. Is there still a sizable Japanese-Mexican community, or other East Asian ethnic groups?
CS: Oh yeah, definitely. You find Japanese and Chinese restaurants up and down Baja California and the Pacific coast of Mexico. Especially when you talk about a city like Mexicali.
Because Mexico has so many influxes of so many, not just conquerors—when the Spanish arrived, when the Lebanese arrived, the French, Jewish people, Chinese, Japanese—you started to see this commingling of cultures and foods.
TO: Being from Sinaloa, you’ve focused on aguachile in your cooking. What do you think of it having a larger moment?
CS: It’s absolutely having a moment. It’s having a moment in fine dining restaurants, too. I think even Noma had an aguachile.
I think trying to take things back to their original state is doing a disservice to all of the amazing dishes that exist nowadays—thanks to those original dishes, right? I think one of the beauties in food is that it does evolve, and thanks to all of this amazing rich culture, these amazing recipes. For example, because of the Mediterranean influence, we have what is known as “Baja Med.”
That creates new cultures that are not divided by borders, this commingling of ingredients and cultures, and I think that is really amazing. You’re starting to see things that are… not just, for example, Japanese influence on Mexican food—it’s Japanese with a little bit of Mediterranean, with a little bit of Lebanese. And that’s just one dish, or one taco. And I think it’s so beautiful.
My thing is just, if it’s a ceviche, it’s a ceviche; if it’s not an aguachile, don’t call it an aguachile. [laughs]