Colombian food is not spicy and aside from a handful of Colombians I know, most aren’t particularly fond of very spicy food. Regardless, this thing we call ají is by far one of Colombia’s most popular condiments and, as its name implies, ají is in fact spicy.
That’s because the word “ají” means chili pepper in Spanish and is also the name given to several variations of this spicy condiment that can go on everything from empanadas to soups to boiled potatoes (like the boiled salted potatoes shown below – papa salada), and so much more.
At home there is, without fail, always an argument over how spicy to make the ají. Some family members like it HOT (like me and my dad) other family members like it mild. So mild, in fact that according to my dad it’s just a cilantro sauce. I agree. Ají should be spicy, hence the name! But to each his own…
That said, ají reminds me in a way of the preparation of garam masala in India. Each family has its own recipe, with a little more of this or that, or variations that have evolved over the years and sometimes have even been passed on from generation to generation.
The following recipes are basic road maps but once you taste the final product, you might want to tweak the amount of chili (or even leave the seeds in), or add more cilantro, water, vinegar, or maybe even something else to suit your taste.
So let’s begin with the basic ají casero – the ají that most people make in their homes and which you’ll find in restaurants and along side every empanada being sold on the street. While the recipe is basically the same across the board, you’ll find slight variations depending on the person making it. A lot of people put oil in theirs – no one in my family ever has. Some people add more tomato, others none at all. I add mostly cilantro and a little tomato if I happen to have some on hand. Some even go so far as to add parsley, vinegar and oil which practically turns our ají into chimichurri.
Whichever you choose and whatever your final recipe looks and tastes like, I’m sure you’ll be reaching for it often…
- 1-2 chili peppers, seeded and finely minced (the variety you choose depends on how hot you want your ají – habanero is a good one if you like it really hot!)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons white vinegar
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 2 scallions, green and white parts finely chopped
- 1 tomato, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro, or more to taste
Place the finely chopped chili peppers, salt and vinegar in a small non-reactive bowl (wooden or ceramic works well). Set aside while preparing the other ingredients. Add remaining ingredients to the bowl and combine. Add enough water to loosen the mixture slightly to a “saucy” consistency.
Ají de Maní (Peanut):
Ají de maní comes from a city called Popayán, the capital of the Department of Cauca. It’s usually served with empanadas or tamales de pipián, also typical of the region. Now that I started making it though, I like to put it on everything or even use it as a dip.
- 1/2 cup stock (I used beef but you can use chicken or veg)
- 1/2 pound raw, shelled peanuts, roasted
- 1 tomato, peeled, seeded and roughly chopped
- 2 scallions, green and white parts chopped
- 3-4 chili peppers, seeded and chopped
- 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro, or more to taste
- 1 hard boiled egg, chopped
- Juice of one lime
- Salt to taste
Place the roasted peanuts and stock in a food processor. Blend until the mixture reaches a uniform consistency. Add remaining ingredients and pulse until everything is incorporated. If the mixture is too thick, add more stock (or lemon juice) until you reach the desired consistency.
Ají de Huevo (Hard-boiled egg):
My Dad remembers this ají de huevo from his childhood, but somewhere along the line people stopped making it. I’m not sure why because I think it’s pretty amazing. A little unusual but very special – the yolk turns into a creamy saucy consistency when mixed with the vinegar and lime juice.
- 2 chili peppers, seeded and finely chopped
- Salt, to taste
- 1 tablespoon vinegar
- 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
- 4 hard boiled eggs, finely chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon lime juice
Place the finely chopped chili peppers, salt and vinegar in a small non-reactive bowl – set aside while preparing the other ingredients. Combine all remaining ingredients.
So there you have 3 recipes for ají. I haven’t included the recipe for ají de aguacate because it basically entails mashing up some avocados and adding some of the ají casero and a chopped up hard boiled egg. It’s very much like a guacamole but runnier because native Colombian avocados have a slightly higher water content – therefore more of a sauce than a salsa consistency.
Have fun experimenting and adjusting these recipes to suit you and your family’s taste. If your family is anything like mine, you might end up making two batches – one normal batch with lots of chili and one for the wimps 😉