“You want to make an aguachile?” asks Gabriela Cámara. “Well, what do you have that’s delicious? Then make that aguachile.”
Cámara is the chef of Contramar in Mexico City, Cala in San Francisco and soon-to-open Onda in Santa Monica. Her cookbook, “My Mexico City Kitchen,” recently came out, as did “A Tale of Two Kitchens,” a Netflix documentary about her and her restaurants. And beyond the kitchen, she was given a prestigious position by the Mexican government on a new Council for Cultural Diplomacy.
On top of all that, Cámara also makes a mean aguachile.
“Aguachile is from the north of Mexico,” Cámara explains. “I’m not from there, but I remember having aguachile for the first time while visiting Sinaloa and thinking, ‘Oh, this is really extraordinary.’”
Aguachile translates to “watery chile,” and Cámara emphasizes that that’s how simple the dish is. “The traditional version is literally raw fish or shellfish, onion and chile tepin that you season with salt and bathe with lime juice,” she says.
Unlike ceviche, in which seafood marinates in lime juice long enough to take on a “cooked” texture, aguachile is eaten immediately. Fish and shellfish prepared this way retain a supple silkiness. Aguachile also tastes much spicier than ceviche because of chile tepin, small, round red dried chiles from the north of Mexico that pack an intense yet fruity heat. The chiles can be scattered whole over the dish or blended into the lime juice for an even more fiery effect.
Cámara blends parsley and cilantro into the lime juice as well. For this version, she took inspiration from her L.A. restaurant partner, Jessica Koslow, and pickled the red onions with vinegar. “L.A. for me is Jessica’s food, it’s Sqirl,” says Cámara. “All the pickled deliciousness will give this more acidity to balance the sweetness from the shrimp.” Because the onions wilt slightly from pickling, Cámara includes cucumbers in her aguachile for their crunch.
Cámara’s three aguachile essentials — her herb-chile lime juice, pickled onions and salted cucumbers — go with any pristine raw seafood. Here, she uses shrimp, but she says, “I think it’s really important for people to learn how to eat seafood that’s fresh rather than absolutely eat shrimp even if it’s not fresh. Ingredient-driven food literally has to be driven by ingredients.”