Fresh and dried “aji” are at the heart of Peruvian cooking and are one of the oldest cultivated plants in the Americas. Common varieties are:
Aji amarillo Translating as “yellow chilli”, this is regarded by many as perhaps the most important ingredient in Peruvian cooking. Prized for their citrus aroma and flavour, and their vibrant yellow hue, these hot chillies are commonly sold fresh but are also available as a paste or ground. Aji amarillo are used in salsas, sauces, soups and stews, namely salsa huancaina and aji de gallina.
Aji panca A mild dried dark chilli with a smoky, slightly fruity taste. Most commonly sold dried or as a paste. Used in sauces, stews and marinades.
Aji miraso Sun-dried aji Amarillo, or “chillies looking at the sun”, these have a distinctive fruity flavour and are best described as a cross between aji amarillo and aji panca. Used in marinades and sauces.
A staple of the Incas, the ancient grain has, in recent times, gained widespread “superfood” status, being the most complete protein of all the grains. It is also higher in unsaturated fats and lower in carbohydrates than most others. Quinoa is easy to digest and has a subtle, slightly nutty flavour that provides the perfect vehicle for bold sauces and stews. Cultivars include white (or golden), red and black. Red and black quinoa takes slightly longer to cook than white.
A staple first cultivated in Peru as far back as 1200 BC, corn is as important to the modern Peruvians as it was to their ancestors. It’s found in more than 50 varieties, including yellow, white, purple, black and red, and prepared in countless ways, including ground to make breads or sweet and savoury humitas, steamed and served as an accompaniment, or dried and served as a snack (cancha).
There’s no doubt the Peruvians love their spuds. More than 2000 varieties are cultivated in Peru, many of those being native to the Andes. Potatoes can be freeze dried and added to soups and stews, made into chips or take centrestage in a papa al huancaina salad. While not technically a potato, cassava is another favoured tuber and is used to make a version of cassava al al huancaina.
Pronounced “waa-kah-tie” and also known as black mint, this Peruvian native tastes like a cross between mint and basil, with a slight anise flavour. It is central to much Andean cooking, the leaves being ground to a paste and used to flavour sauces, soups and stews or used as a condiment. Available in jars from Latin food stores.