Cartagena-Style Ceviche is the Chicago Deep Dish of Shrimp Cocktails

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

My wife Adri and I just got back from a week in Cartagena* on Colombia's Caribbean coast where we celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary. We got married at the Iglesia de San Pedro Claver in the old Spanish colonial walled city six years ago. Sounds romantic to come back to our wedding site for our anniversary, right? But truth be told, I was there for another reason: the food. In particular, the seafood.

*Despite what Michael Douglas might tell you, it's pronounced "car-tuh-hey-nuh," not "car-tuh-hey-nyuh," and it's also a good distance away from the nearest jungle. Mispronouncing Cartagena is an only slightly smaller offense to Colombians as spelling Colombia with a U (this happens ALL THE TIME).

In Cartagena, ceviche is all over the place. You'll find shops that specialize in it in the old colonial city. You'll find them in the new downtown. You'll find it on the roof of fancy hotels. You'll find it in beachside shacks. Heck, you'll even find it directly on the water. Jump on one of the charter boats that shuttles you out to the Islas de Rosarios for a day on the beach or snorkeling and odds are that you'll make a brief pit stop next to a two-man canoe selling lobster ceviche.

You're probably familiar with the Peruvian-style ceviche made with raw seafood cured with citrus juice and aromatics. The Colombian stuff is different. It's made with cooked shellfish and shrimp, langoustines, lobster, oysters, octopus, periwinkles, or whatever gets dragged up that days—dressed with lime juice, ketchup, mayonnaise, and perhaps some hot sauce and onions or cilantro. It comes served with saltines.

It's sort of like a walking shrimp cocktail. It's the kind of dish that you could initially scoff at as being cheap (it is) or non-classy (you eat it out of styrofoam cups), but it's genuinely delectable. There's something about the way lime juice brightens up store-bought condiments into something completely different. I like to think of Colombian ceviche sort of like Chicago deep dish pizza: Everyone knows that it's not really ceviche, but darned if it ain't delicious anyway.

For years, the canoe that pulled up to the side of the charter boats had a bright rainbow-colored umbrella that Adri and I would look out for. The captain of the canoe takes the boat out every morning at dawn to free-dive for rock lobsters which he harvests by hand. He then builds a small fire in the bottom of his canoe and places a grate directly over the flame. He carefully grills the lobsters, cracks them in half, and serves them, still slightly warm, on a styrofoam plate with a dollop of mayo and ketchup and one of those diminutive Colombian limes, all for about the equivalent of $7 or so.

My first time in Cartagena we had foolishly forgotten to take out cash before boarding the boat in the morning, which meant that we had to scrounge for change in order to come up with about half of what the man was asking. After some finagling and begging he agree to sell us a half portion for half price. We've never made that mistake since. Picking at that lobster with my fingers coated in salty seawater is one of my fondest food memories.

This time around, the umbrella was different but the setup was the same.

I don't think it's an experience I can quite replicate at home. Not just because it's impossible to get small, fresh-from-the-sea rock lobsters around here, but because in this case, the setting makes up about 90% of the experience.

But there's nothing stopping me from making amazing Colombian-style ceviche at home with whatever fresh seafood is available to me. Come to think of it, there's nothing stopping you either!