Are you like the Peruvians and enjoy a bit of a punch, a bit of zing, or even a kick in your food? Then Peruvian food really is for you!
Since trying red hot chilis (or peppers as their known in America) as a child and not only burning my mouth, but several other parts of my body through accidental touching (eyes, nose and ears), I’ve come to have a VERY healthy respect for anything with the word ‘chilli’ or ‘peppers’ in it. Indeed, it was such a bad experience that I STILL get flashbacks whenever I hear a Red Hot Chilli Peppers song on the radio… Weird, huh?!
So after I arrived on the flying kangaroo I was glad to hear nothing but Peruvian salsa on the radio on the way to my downtown Lima digs, and was told by my cab driver about ‘the most important ingredient in Peruvian cooking’ – the Aji (Ahh-he), or yellow chilli pepper – Whoa! How did this cabbie even pick that I was a foodie? It must have been the smell of the gourmet sandwhich I had in my tucker bag from Sydney airport, or something? Speaking of smells… The Ahi yellow pepper puts out a very interesting smell that crosses fruit with that very distinctive chilli smell – and with varying degrees of hotness known throughout Peru – it’s actually more of a milder tasting chilli pepper according to the experts, and I agree.
So I was keen to get my hands on some (remembering my past experiences) and try it for myself to get a taste of what I was about to enjoy all throughout Peru.
So we visited a restaurant in Lince called Doomo Saltado in order to try Perusian (Peruvian and Japanese) food with heavy hits of Aji peppered throughout.
The bowl of yellow stuff you see in the photo is what Aji looks like as a sauce, and it packs a somewhat more lighter punch, but like any chilli if you have a decent amount of it you’ll start to taste, and feel the burn after a while.
So what exactly does Aji taste like in a sauce? I found out in a dish called Lomo Saltado – a Peruvian stir fry that has marinated strips of beef with roasted tomatoes, baked potatoes, sauteed onions and then served with a very generous ‘Tallarin de Huancaina’ – a spaghetti pasta with a cheese sauce that also has Aji peppers, along with finely chopped red onion, and garlic. The pasta happily co-existed with the Smokey flavours of the beef, and the tomato actually balanced out the Aji – and the potato complimented the beef in its earthy and waxy taste, and crunchy texture, and did what potatos do best – soak up the delicious beef jus that had all of the rich, earthy flavours of the beef, and the distinctive smokey flavour of the flame grill.
This meal was like most meals I’ve had in Peru so far, somewhat very different to anything I’ve had in the past, and while most dishes have similarities to what I’m used to, there are new flavours, such as Aji, to be savoured. While I have to say that Aji is very different to any sort of chilli I’ve eaten before, what it does remind me of is the distinctive way that makes it Peruvian, and not something that’s been simply co-opted from another culture, or singularly adopted from a bygone colonial era – this is in essence what makes this chilli what it is – Peruvian to the core, and really is what the cab driver described ‘as the single most important Peruvian ingredient’. I’m really glad I’ve now tried it, and I’m really looking forward to trying lots more of it.