Peru, presente!

March 26, 2018

My daughter’s school hosts an International Night every year, where parents can volunteer to set up a table to represent their country of origin. We are new to the school, as Kahlo just started kindergarten this fall, so I thought this would be a great way to get involved! Now, while Kahlo and I were both born in the U.S., our most prominent heritage (you know how we do, U.S. folk!) is from Peru -- land of the Incan Empire, Machu Picchu (one of the 7 Wonders of the World), cute llamas (made more beloved by the Disney movie Emperor’s New Groove), alpacas (which are known for producing super soft and warm wool), guinea pigs and many of the foods -- and “super” foods -- we eat today. Peru has also gotten a lot of press over the last several years for its culinary boom -- the Mistura food festival is the largest in Latin America!

 

Peru is home to over 32 million people of varying backgrounds: Indigenous (Quechua being the largest representation), Mestizo (mixed heritage), those of European heritage, those of African heritage, those of Asian heritage (mainly Chinese and Japanese), and others still. Spanish is the official language but Quechua, Aymara and other indigenous languages are spoken as well, among others. Each ethnic group has gorgeous music and dance traditions. And then, of course, there’s the food!

 

The national cuisine represents all of these diverse peoples. You’ll find an Italian influence in Tallarines Verdes, a pesto spaghetti dish. You’ll see a Chinese influence in Lomo Saltado, a beef stir fry. You clearly note the Japanese influence in Tiradito, sashimi-style raw fish in a spicy marinade like ceviche. You’ll find an African influence in Anticuchos, grilled and spiced beef heart. And you most certainly find the indigenous influence throughout many dishes, especially Carapulcra, a potato and meat stew (using alpaca meat, historically).

 

The dish I chose to make for International Night, Aji de gallina, boasts multiple influences. This is a colonial-era dish from Lima, the capital, that uses shredded chicken as its protein and then enrobes it in a delicious, spicy cheese sauce. The name literally translates as “pepper hen” -- the chili pepper featured in the sauce in none other than aji amarillo. Aji amarillo, translates as “yellow pepper” yet it is actually orange in color when mature. Peru has many different chili peppers (chili peppers are native to Latin America, originating from Central America). Aji amarillo is king in Peru. It is not too spicy and carries a fruitiness and slight sweetness. It is used ubiquitously in dishes throughout any Peruvian menu. Let’s breakdown where these ingredients come to illustrate the various influences that go into this dish by using my recipe:

 

 

Aji de gallina - Serves 4-6

  • 1 whole chicken....................................Native to Southeast Asia

  • 3-4 aji amarillo or 2-3 teaspoons aji amarillo paste.....................................................Native to Peru

  • 3-5 cloves Garlic..................................Native to Central Asia

  • 2 medium onions.................................Native to Central Asia

  • 1-2 teaspoons Tahini *.........................Sesame is originally native to Africa, tahini from the Mediterranean region

  • 2 slices White Bread............................This style of white flour bread originates from Europe. 

  • 12 oz (1 can) evaporated milk..............Cows originate from Persia

  • 7 oz queso fresco/farmers cheese......Cows originate from Persia

  • 1 bay leaf...............................................Native to the Mediterranean

  • Salt and pepper to taste

 

* Some form of nut, usually walnuts, are added as a thickener to this sauce. In my time as a line cook in Peru, one of the secret ingredients I learned to use is sesame instead. I often have Tahini in my pantry, so it was a no-brainer substitute!

 

Instructions

  1. Cut up whole chicken in quarters and cover with water in large stock pot. Season the water with a whole onion (peeled, halved), 2 cloves of garlic (whole) and a bay leaf. Add salt to taste. Once it comes to a boil, reduce to medium low heat and cook covered for an hour. Once cooked, remove chicken pieces from liquid and let cool. Reserve some of the liquid for your sauce later. (Consider saving the rest for a future soup!)

  2. While chicken is simmering, take the slices of bread and cover with evaporated milk in a bowl. Let sit.

  3. Next, slice the remainder of your onions. If you are using frozen aji amarillo, slice open and remove seeds and veins if you want a less spicy sauce (I usually do this while they are still partially frozen, easier to slice!). Then saute onions and aji amarillo for several minutes, until onions become translucent. (If you are using paste, add the paste to the onions and saute.) Add roughly chopped garlic. Saute until fragrant, 30 seconds.

  4. In a blender, add your sauteed veggies, the cheese, the bread/milk mixture, the tahini, and then blend well. Once well blended, return the sauce to heat. If the sauce appears too thick, use your reserved chicken broth to loosen. If the spice level is too much, you can add a bit more broth, milk and/or cheese (if you add cheese you must blend again).

  5. Take your cooled chicken and strip the meat from the bone. Shred the chicken with your fingers, you should be left with pieces that are small and short enough for easy eating!

  6. Add shredded chicken into the sauce and allow to heat through. Let simmer for 10 minutes. Adjust salt to taste.

 

This dish is usually served over slices of boiled potatoes, topped with sliced boiled egg and botija olives for decoration, and a side of white rice. Because, CARBS! And PROTEIN!

 

Here’s a bit more about those other foodstuffs:

  • Potato.......................................................Native to Peru

  • Egg...........................................................Chickens native to SE Asia

  • Botija Olives............................................A rare strain of olive tree from Peru, olives originate from the Mediterranean

  • White medium rice.................................Native to Asia

 

I served this dish as an hors d'oeuvre at the event, in little tortilla cups, similar to what is shown here:

You can top it with an aji amarillo compote and a crumb of queso fresco for texture, flavor, and dimension, as I've done in this photo.

 

Isn’t it amazing to see how food items have traveled around the planet and resulted in creole type cuisines everywhere?! We hope you enjoy this special dish. I couldn’t keep up with serving the crowds at International Night. It was a hit! Buen provecho, amig@s!

 

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