In Colombia we have a generic name for a recipe that isn’t generic at all. We call so many different things ají, that it seems language cuts itself short to tell the differ contexts apart. But, if we close our eyes, we certainly know what ají is. We dare even bend the scale in saying for a Colombian, Ají is a sauce not the fruit. A gift from the gods, a pickle, that essential condiment that is available fresh in dining halls and street stalls, ají gets served in uneven and multicolored vessels, and always carries a small spoon to be dosified, as if one could stop with just one teaspoon of it. The question, “would you like it with ají?” always gets answered with an overwhelming YES.
In essence when we talk about ají, we mean one of two things. On the one side, chili, the wonderful fruit (sweet or spicy) that was given to us by the earth to season and add texture to our meals, on the other, this sauce we season, garnish and accompany plates as diverse as fried foods, soups and stews. If we get technical, the sauce contains the fruit, and honors it.
Let’s talk about the fruit. Wandering the local markets in our food tours with @FoodiesColombia we find a discreet variety of local chilies, and many that aren’t native to Colombia but have entered our culture, stayed and became very popular. That is the case of ají dulce, habanero and rocoto. In Bogotá, in Paloquemao, the queen of chilies is indisputably doña Eugenia, who not only knows them to perfection, but transforms them into her own pastes. They sell like crazy. She allows us to peep into the spicy world and buy her chilies in our #SavoringPaloquemao and #CookingPaloquemao tours. In Cartagena, we visit Wilson in Bazurto in our #CookingBazurto #BazurtobyBourdain tours; he prepares his “picantes” with chivato chili. It is inevitable to catch the smell of both the market’s corridors and get our noses shaken to show us we’re alive; we have to register – and photograph in our memories- the colors of the fruits in their exhibition beds catching the eye of the most insensible being, and, of course, you have to clear your doubt and calm the curiosity chili embodies.
Our local classification and varieties will never be as complex and rigorous as other countries in Latin America that have a spice culture: we have chivato, pique, pajarito and dulce. They barely classify on the spice scale, but are interesting in other fields. We do not consume specialized spice, we transform it. That’s where the real magic begins, the craft of ají.
Let’s talk sauce now. Or infinite sauces. Every Colombian could tell you a different recipe for ají. In some regions it is pickled, in others it is pasty, some are sweet, some are pebre-like. Every cook adds their touch, varies proportions, adds salt and spice, adapts it to the plate it will accompany, compliment or contrast, in order to highlight a flavor, make you thirsty, make you buy another empanada… All of this is ají:
There is the herb ají in the “Gran Libro de la Cocina Colombiana”, a sort of traditional bible of Colombian cooking: the recipe has scallion, white onion, cilantro and parsley, tomato, chili, white vinegar, salt and pepper and is possibly the most classic recipe we could imagine. This recipe adds the chili just for infusion and discards it later. It’s pure aroma.
Let’s also imagine sitting in front of the kitchen window at Mesa Franca in Bogotá and talk with its chef Iván Cadena of his “ajíes” on the menu: chirere from the flatlands, gets mixed with tomato and vinegar into a paste to serve with empanadas, and his panela ají, a spicy syrup, masterfully different. You can taste both in our #NewChapinero tour, by the way.
Last but not least, let’s walk into our @FoodiesColombia‘s kitchen in Bogotá, for our #CookingBogotaClassics and imagine the ají we dreamt inspired by our fruits. This recipe is an homage to the classics, combining the picadillo of scallion and cilantro with a twist: panela-macerated Lulo and local pajarito chili (fresh if available at the market). This ají is a mixture of tradition and fusion.
There’s a plethora of ají sauces, which is a blessing for those of us that cannot conceive a dish without ají. Every day and special occasion dishes counting.
If your answer to the question would you like it with ají is still yes, you got it.
To finish, we wanted to encourage the preparation of our ají, so we share with you our recipe:
Lulo Ají (for 4)
- 1 madure Lulo, firm
- 1 tablespoon powdered panela
- 1 scallion, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
- 2 pajarito chilis, chopped, some seed discarded
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- Water and salt to taste
- Peal the Lulo and cut it into small chunks. Macerate it in a bowl with the panela.
- Chop the scallion and cilantro and add it to the Lulo mixture, as well as the y Pajarito chili (chopped). Stir.
- Add the vinegar and let the sauce sit for a few minutes for the spice to appear.
- Taste, add salt and serve with many empanadas.