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Johann Schuster Makes Ceviche

Though a cuddly two-month-old alpaca drew some interest, the hit of Houston's first Peruvian festival, held last weekend at Heights Theatre, was a ceviche demonstration by chef Johann Schuster.

The owner of Charivari Restaurant in Midtown, Schuster whipped up three batches of the raw-fish dish, common in several South American countries, and dropped handfuls into cups for onlookers to sample.

Working with corvina, a Pacific bass, then monchong, a Hawaiian fish that's among his favorites, Schuster dropped the chopped fish into a bowl, then added Peruvian sweet onions, key lime juice, diced Fresno pepper and salt.

At his restaurant, Schuster uses Himalayan pink salt, but he forgot it and had to settle for table salt last Sunday. The onlookers shouldering their way forward, empty cups in outstretched hands, didn't seem to mind, and neither did we.

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Garnished with a slice of camote, a South American sweet potato, and a shot of mayo-based, aji pepper and lime-juice sauce, the sample was a better bite than we would have expected possible from a plastic cup.

At once spicy, salty, sour and sweet, each flavor seemed to find a different corner of the mouth. The textures found a similar balance, the meaty fish mixing nicely with the smooth mayo sauce, while the crisp bits of onion and pepper kept things interesting.

"With fresh fish, you can make good ceviche," Schuster said, pushing the odorless fish under our noses. "Otherwise it makes no sense."

Bonus: Sweets by Belen, run by Peru native Belen Bailey, also was on hand at the festival. Her alfajores, a mainstay at Peruvian coffee shops, held a dulce de leche filling between two buttery, powdery cookies. The alfajores, particularly Bailey's Texas-pecan take on the tradition, were her best items on offer, though a jelly roll called a pionono in Peru is worth mentioning, if only for its Venezuelan name -- brazo gitano, or "gypsy's arm," according to a native of that country at the counter.

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