Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Ají: The Kick in South American Cuisine

As a huge fan of spicy fare, my recent journey through South America wouldn´t have been complete without "ají". I enjoyed the regional differences between recipes, but certainly had my personal favorites.

Ají (pronounced Ah-HEE) is the Latin American word for all hot peppers. Used for centuries as a condiment and digestive stimulant, it is believed to have healing powers. Ají is traditionally used with every meal and is commonly incorporated into a regional sauce, which varies widely depending on the country and the personal taste of the chef. 

The sauces often contain tomatoes, cilantro (coriander), local spicy peppers and raw onions. Ají has been used in Andean countries, such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, since before the time of the Incas. Chile has its own milder blend, known as "Pebre", and Argentina has the "Chimichurri". 

I'd like the share a few of these tasty recipes with you...


Let's begin with the mildest of the options; the Chilean version, known as "pebre". 

The word pebre in Catalán means pepper of any type. According to sources, the origin of Chilean Pebre dates to the arrival of Catalán engineers and highly skilled masons, under the supervision of the Italian architect Joaquin Toesca, for the construction of the Tajamares de Santiago. Catalán workers made a simple sauce (salsa) using cilantro, oil, vinegar and salt, which they called "pebre" for its main ingredient; the ají. This was probably due to the lack of ingredients, like pine nuts and roasted almonds, to make Romesco sauce (a Catalán bell pepper sauce). Chileans love their pebre, and it's the most common condiment to accompany bread, meat or most other dishes.

I found this sauce to be very similar to the Mexican "pico de gallo"-- refreshing, but far too mild for my personal taste. 

Pebre recipe #1
Pebre recipe #2


Since Argentina is famous for its beef, Chimichurri was created as the perfect complement to grilled meat. It's not clear where the unique name originated, but it's made of finely-chopped parsley, minced garlic, olive oil, oregano, hot peppers (optional, but recommended) and wine vinegar. 
Best of all, it takes about 10 minutes to make!

Not only is it delicious, but also nutritious. Fresh parsley, the dominant ingredient in chimichurri, is an herb that not only has a distinctive and delicate flavor, but is also high in vitamin C, calcium, iron, vitamin A and carotenes. Combine that with the healing properties of fresh garlic and olive oil, and you've got one tasty elixir. Who needs all the extra sugars and artificial flavorings of BBQ sauce?

This is one of my personal favorite sauces to accompany steaks...or just about anything, for that matter! I´ve also discovered it makes a great addition to salad dressings. In my opinion, no BBQ is complete without it.

Authentic Chimichurri Recipe


Peru is a vast country and has dozens of variations of ají sauces. However, what impressed me the most was the diminutive "ají charapita"(Capsicum frutescens), which originates in the Peruvian Amazonian region of Iquitos. The people in this region are called ‘charapas’, which is a slang term describing the people’s laid back mentality. 

The ají charapita is not grown commercially, and is mostly harvested from wild plants or grown in back yards. While in the Iquitos region, I ate this tiny potent pepper whole, with just about any kind of dish, and am currently investigating how to grow it in my own garden. Unlike many spicy peppers, we found that the "charapita" spares you any painful side-effects the following day, which is an added bonus. This pepper is not only spicy, but has a delicious citrus flavor, similar to the habanero. It complemented the tasty local fish dishes to perfection. If you can find it where you live, you're very lucky, indeed!

Here are some recipes for Peruvian ají sauces:

Ají verde (made with jalapeños)

Ají amarillo paste (if you have access to the elusive yellow pepper) 


Ecuadorian ají also varies depending on the region. My personal favorite is made with "tomate de árbol" (tree tomato), which gives it a lovely yellowish color and fruity undertones. 

A tree tomato or tomate de arbol is a South American fruit that looks somewhat like a roma tomato, but pointier and with a thicker skin. Unfortunately, it's difficult to find the fruit outside of Ecuador, but a traditional ají sauce can also be made in its absence.  The main ingredients are hot peppers, onion, cilantro and lime juice, and is perfect to accompany ceviches, rice dishes and patacones (fried plantain fritters) 

Ají criollo

I recommend trying out some of these recipes to add a little kick, and South American flavor, to your own cooking. Stay tuned for more recipes and spicy tales from South America...


Interesting read:


  1. I tried to get the seeds for the peruvian aji pepper but they were sold out - I will try to order earlier next year. I'm dying to cultivate them! love your blog :)

  2. Thanks for your message, TK :) I'm glad you enjoy the blog, and best of luck with the Peruvian ají. Please let be know if you're able to track down the elusive Amazonian Capsicum frutecens!