Hopefully with the expanding interest in Latin cuisine we North Americans will find the famed “ají” chilies in our produce markets. I don’t mean the frozen or canned varieties that one makes do with when forced. I consider it a victory when I see something in the stores that I’ve never seen before. These are tools to me and I want a truckload of them!

The Peruvian Andes are the probable home of the ají. In her ground-breaking work Peppers, The Domesticated Capsicums, Jean Andrews wrote “The ají is so much a part of the diet of natives of Peru that it must have seemed natural for the Spanish-trained Indian artist who painted the ‘Last Supper’ for the Cathedral of Cuzco during the seventeenth century to place a dish of ajís on the table before Christ and his Apostles for their last meal.”

The Quechua Indians native to Peru call the ají “Kellu-Uchu”. The Quechua word for chile is “uchu”. The ají is most often used in its dried state and is known as “cusqueño”. You will be offered a preparation of this in many Peruvian dishes called “ají amarillo”. It is religiously applied to ceviches and tiraditos and you will find it with another national dish called “cau cau”. I love that name. It is a dish made from the cow’s stomach lining.

We are working on our fourth cookbook and it will be far and away my most ambitious one yet. It will be called New World Cuisine: Latin America and the Caribbean. In my research, travels, reading and interviews I’ve come to the realization that Peruvian cuisine is possibly the most enticing of all of the countries I’ve studied. It has to do with the topography of Peru, as well as the historical and cultural experiences it has known.

I’ve been immersing myself in another book. It’s called The Art of Peruvian Cuisine ,written by Tony Custer. There are English language versions available and if you can find a copy I urge you to grab it fast. Mr. Custer writes well and gives plenty of evidence that there is groundbreaking work going on among the new chefs of Peru. I am joining them in many ways by working with one of my favorite new tools: ají.

I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s my word on food.


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Copyright © by Norman Van Aken, 2001
*Works consulted: “Peppers, The Domesticated Capsicums”, Jean Andrews, (University of Texas Press)
and “The Art of Peruvian Cuisine”, Tony Custer.