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Using the flavorsome Peruvian yellow pepper (ají amarillo) as its main ingredient, ají de gallina – a creamy, curry-like shredded chicken dish – has long been Peru’s favorite comfort food. In recent years, however, the dish has won itself a spot on some of Lima’s top restaurant menus. We stopped by TASTE Peruvian Cooking Studio to chat to Lima-born Le Cordon Bleu chef Christian Manrique to find out how to make the famous ají de gallina at home.
CT: Where do you think the love for ají de gallina comes from in Peru?
Chef Christian Manrique (CCM): Ají de gallina is a meal that reminds every Peruvian of one’s childhood home. I remember when I was younger my mother and grandmother would often make huge pots of the stuff, and we would eat it together at the table as a family. It’s the ultimate home-cooked comfort food.
CT: Before we start cooking, what, for you, makes an authentic ají de gallina?
CCM: Definitely the use of the Peruvian ají amarillo, as this makes up 90% of the dish’s unique flavor. You could use a different type of mild chili, but it just wouldn’t be an ají de gallina. A rich queso fresco (soft Andean cheese) that isn’t too salty and has the perfect creamy consistency is also essential.
CT: What are the common mistakes you see when newbies take on this iconic dish?
CCM: Cooking the ají de gallina may look simple at first, but there are two mistakes people often make: overcooking the chicken and under-/over-seasoning the sauce. The chicken should be nice and moist, not dry or chalky. I make sure my chicken is always cooked at an internal temperature of 70 degrees Celsius (160F) by using a kitchen thermometer. The sauce should be a nice creamy consistency (not too thick or runny) and be seasoned at the last minute; this way you can allow for the saltiness of the cheese.
CT: Any final tips before we take the plunge?
CCM: Be sure to cook your sides, such as the rice, potatoes and eggs, before you start making the ají de gallina. This way, you can serve up the dish as soon as it’s ready, which is when the flavor of the ají is at its tastiest.
Now that you’ve got the lowdown on Peru’s favorite home-cooked dish, it’s time to get down to business. According to Chef Manrique, here’s what you’ll need for a knockout ají de gallina.
For the Ají
1 chicken breast (on the bone)
1 red onion, roughly chopped
3.5 oz (100g) roughly chopped garlic
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
Salt and pepper
2 bay leaves
17 oz (482g) deseeded and deveined Peruvian ají amarillo (You can buy frozen or dried ají amarillo peppers in most Latin markets all over the world. If you can’t get hold of them, substitute with another mildly spiced pepper.)
2 oz (57g) peeled pecans
Soda crackers (as needed)
3/4 cup + 1.5 Tbsp (200ml) evaporated milk
5 oz (150g) queso fresco (feta or halloumi would also do the trick)
2 lb (0.9 kg) yellow potatoes, peeled and sliced
A handful of sliced, pitted olives
4 hard-boiled eggs
Boil the potatoes, rice and eggs. Set aside.
Clean the chicken breast, removing all of the skin and fat but leaving the meat on the bone. Set aside for a moment.
Place your sliced leeks in a saucepan filled with water, along with the bay leaves and peppercorns, and put on a high heat. Once the water starts to boil, add the chicken breast.
Once the chicken is cooked, take the pan off the heat and let the broth cool down. Strain the stock into a jug and put to one side (we will be using this in a moment). You will need about 2/3 cup (150ml).
Once the chicken has cooled down, shred it into bite-size chunks. Set aside.
Next up, place the ají amarillo peppers in a deep pan with a little oil and sauté them along with the garlic and onions. Cook until soft.
Take the ají, garlic and onions off the heat, and leave to cool for a few minutes. Then, place the ají mixture into a blender, along with the evaporated milk, soft cheese, the chicken stock you set aside earlier, pecans and soda crackers (put in as much as is needed to get a nice consistency).
Put the blended mixture onto the heat and add the shredded chicken. Reduce the sauce on a low heat until a creamy, curry-like consistency is achieved. Be careful here: you want a sauce that isn’t too runny but not too stodgy either.
Serve with your cooked white rice, yellow potatoes, a sprinkling of black olives and a couple slices of hard-boiled egg.
Christian Manrique is a Peruvian chef who trained at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu culinary arts school. After working in top-end restaurants and five-star hotels in Sydney and Miami, he returned to Peru to set up his own cooking school in Cusco, where, through combining Andean ingredients with contemporary cooking techniques, he aims to showcase his country’s diverse culinary roots to the world.
Note: Our photographed version uses dried pulla (or puya) peppers instead of traditional ají amarillo due to availability at the local grocery store. You can similarly replace your peppers with any mildly spicy red, yellow, or orange pepper as well.