Cooking with a Pinch of History: Seviche de Pescado

by Brittany Avila

Continuing on a streak of summer-friendly recipes, I decided to make Seviche de Pescado, which meets my usual standards of being an easy to make, healthy and historical dish! This recipe comes from Don Ricardo’s Early California and Mexico Cookbook and reflects Santa Barbara’s maritime location and the use of fish in a lot of Chumash and Early California dishes.


1 lb boneless fish, uncooked

Lime juice, enough to cover

3 Bay leaves

1 clove garlic, finely minced

4 tbs. white vinegar

Salt to taste

2 small dry red jap peppers, chopped

1 large sweet onion, thinly sliced

2 Lemons, sliced

4 sprigs of watercress

I used tilapia because it was inexpensive, but if I had it my way I probably would’ve gone with sea bass since it’s in season and local to Santa Barbara. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Cut the filets of uncooked fish into small thin strips. Use white fish, such as red snapper, corbina, fresh tuna, or sea bass.

The Chumash did a lot of fish and sea mammal hunting from both the islands and the mainland of the Santa Barbara area.

Place in a bowl with enough lime juice to cover the fish. Add bay leaves and salt to taste. Leave in refrigerator overnight.

Bay leaves were used by the Chumash as an insect repellent. Local fish included swordfish, white Seabass, yellowtail and rockfish.

This is my tilapia only ¾ covered by lime juice. I used a full bottle of Sunkist lime juice here and had to run out and get more for it to completely cover the fish! photo by Brittany Avila.

Mix together garlic, vinegar, and onion and jap red peppers.

I wasn’t able to find the peppers at a large grocery store like Vons, but instead at a small local produce store (Tri County Produce, for Santa Barbara locals).

Archaeological collections from the islands reveal bone harpoons with multiple barbs used for fishing.

I allowed the garlic, onion and peppers to marinate in the white vinegar for about an hour.  I believe the longer it marinates the better!

Photo by Brittany Avila

Add your two mixtures together and garnish with lemon slices and watercress. Be sure to give the lemons a little squeeze over your dish first!

Vertebrae of fish were used as decorative beads by the Chumash.

I showcased the final product at a going away party for one of our beloved past staff members. She and other staff heartily approved!


Bennyhoff, J.A. Anthropological Records 9:4: Californian Fish Spears and Harpoons, University of California Press, CA, 1950, p.316-317.

Hardwick, Michael. Changes in Landscape: The Beginning of Horticulture in the California Missions, Paragon Agency Publishers, Orange, CA, 2005, p.6-7, 25, 67.

McCall, Lynne and Rosalind Perry. California’s Chumash Indians, John Daniel, Publisher, Santa Barbara, CA, 1986, p. 12, 26, 29.

Ricardo, Don. Early California and Mexico Cookbook, Pacifica House Inc. Publishers, 1968, p.39.

Brittany Avila is the Office Manager at the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation and an aspiring Maestra de Cocina.


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