The Soul of Peruvian Cuisine: A Yellow Pepper

The many uses of the hard-to-find—but complex and flavorful—aji amarillo, from ceviche to goat cheese to vegetables



Some people get excited about big TV appearances and book releases, but you probably already know that I'm not really one of them. What gets me going are smaller things: four-year-olds who love the mac and cheese at the Roadhouse; regular folks who've been frustrated with the corporate world for so long they forgot things could be any other way until they get here to eat or work; little girls picking out goat cheese with their parents; older folks who grew up on great bread coming to the Bakehouse for the first time and discovering a source of traditional, full-flavored, crusty loaves. I like it a lot when we make some small improvement in a long-standing, popular product to make it even better still. And I get really excited when we're able to get some really amazing but almost unknown (in Ann Arbor) traditional foods from other parts of the world to work with here.

I'm writing here with that last one in mind: I'm super psyched that this great traditional chile has arrived in Ann Arbor from Peru. Aji amarillo means "yellow chile," but don't let the rather mundane literal translation lead you to underestimate its import in its homeland. To quote Betsy Power, our importer who's grown ever more passionate about Peruvian foods in the last few years, "Aji amarillo is the soul of Peruvian cooking."

Aji amarillo is notably hot without searing my senses. It's got a light, slightly citrusy maybe, flavor to go with its moderate levels of fire.

While I haven't yet been in person (I know I need to—I'll get to Peru before too long), I'm getting the sense that aji amarillo is to Peru what green chiles are to New Mexico. While the latter likely means little to those who haven't spent time a lot of time in the Land of Enchantment (see the essay I wrote on it ages ago on the Roadhouse website), I'll just say that visiting New Mexico during chile season is ... a big deal. Green chile is in almost everyone's kitchen. It's on every restaurant menu and at every farmers' market; New Mexicans long for it when they're away from home for more than a few days. They put it in everything from salsas, to sauces, to sandwiches, to pizzas and even bagels. I'm getting the sense that much the same is true for aji amarillo; I met a pair of Peruvians when I spoke in D.C. last month, and their eyes lit up large when I told them we'd just gotten some in to the Deli.

Chiles ... I think that chiles are likely a much bigger deal down there than those of us who didn't grow up with them are likely to "get." I'm thinking that they're the "chime that rings the bell of Latin American cooking." Maybe that's not quite right, but you get the idea. Although it's hard to convey up here in our meat-centric world of North American menus, Rick Bayless taught me ages ago that although you often can't really see them on the plate, chiles are actually the centerpiece of many Central and South American dishes. Down there chiles aren't chopped liver; they're the stars, the featured players, the sought-after free agents. It's the complexity of flavor of the peppers, not the pork, poultry, beef, or fish that accompany them, that are the center of culinary attention.

As you might already know, Peru is probably the homeland of the original chiles. They use any number of them, but as Betsy Power put it so nicely, the aji amarillo is the star of their chile show. This particular aji amarillo comes from one of the first organic farms in Peru. It's located near Chincha, about halfway down the coast if you're heading south from Ecuador toward Chile, but inland a bit, right up along the edge of the Peruvian dessert. From what I know the farm has done some very nice work to train local growers in organic techniques, provide health care and infrastructure. As for the chile itself ... it's pretty tasty stuff. Hot for sure, though not enough to smoke you out. Well, I guess that's actually personal judgment—"everyone's heat is their own." For me, at least, aji amarillo is notably hot without searing my senses. It's got a light, slightly citrusy maybe, flavor to go with its moderate levels of fire.

I have much more to learn about Peruvian cooking, so what follows are merely my early attempts to work with the aji. You can use the aji amarillo in pretty much any way you want. Simple stuff like sprinkling it onto goat cheese, salad, fresh mozzarella, or French fries. Try it in salsas and ceviches for sure. I've been doing a simple chile sauce—a bit of olive oil warmed with a touch of flour stirred in, and then ground yellow chile added. Stir in a bit of warm water. Simmer softly for a minutes. Add a bit of sea salt to taste. I like it with ... pretty much everything. Fish, scallops, vegetables, cheese, and meat of most every sort. Very nice way to spice up some rice. It's also easy to sprinkle onto just-cooked steamed potatoes, or add it (with some fresh lime juice) to mashed potatoes. Actually one of Peru's famous dishes is papas al huancaina—cold, cooked potatoes topped with a simple sauce of minced onion and garlic and yellow chiles sautéed in a bit of oil, then blended with a bit of milk and fresh white (farm-type) cheese. I guess if you're entertaining fans for a football game this fall, you could impress them by serving up some of those really delicious blue potatoes at the market and topping them with yellow chile sauce.