Ingredients, Peruvian Cuisine

Fierce Peppers

Rocotos

Hot peppers have deep roots in Perú.  As early Peruvians were beginning to build pyramids in what is one of the worlds driest deserts, about the same time Egyptians were doing the same, Peruvians were already eating hot peppers.

The domesticated them some 6,000 yrs ago.  While most of the world relies on just one species of pepper, capsicum annum, for its hotness, Peru’s neighborhood markets and super stores contain four or five species. And, their most consumed peppers come from two species seldom seen in Europe or the United States.

Its tropical mountains and jungles have most of the twenty-five or so wild species of peppers.  Peru is a land of ecological and food diversity.  Market stalls display a wide variety of peppers in different colors, shapes, and sizes.  They are red, yellow, orange, or green.  Round, oval, or long.  And, they range from long to tiny.   Each has a different flavor and a different intensity of heat.  They find uses in different dishes where they are cherished for the contribution they make to good food.

Although restaurants in Cuzco that cater to tourists increasingly rely on Tabasco Sauce imported from the United States, there is a rich local culture of sauces and peppers which tourists seldom notice, unless they are hot pepper aficionados.

Gabriel Restaurant, besides having a good selection of wines, excellent coffees, and leather couches and chairs from which to enjoy them, serves up a powerful sauce.  They simply call it ají [pronounced ah-he], the generic word in Andean Spanish for hot peppers.  Besides finely diced onions, parsley, salt, and lime juice, it contains finely chopped Ají Limo.  This medium sized, long pepper is generally bright red or yellow and is a member of the capsicum chinensespecies.  It is known for being fiercely hot.  But the lemon juice and its other companions in the little bowl of sauce they serve with empanadas and other dishes tones it down so that its fruity flavors come to the fore, all the while it never disappoints in hotness.

Another local restaurant has different sauces.  Goya, found in front of the Plaza of San Francisco has its own variety of sauces.  Seldom do tourists go here, although they should.  Its fixed price meals, called simply menus [may-news] locally, are well prepared and tasty, as well as inexpensive.  At lunch time, though, it fills its two floors to the rafters with local wanting good food.

Last time I went, Goya served two different hot sauces made with to different peppers.   They had a mild red sauce made with some emulsifier, like crackers or cream, blended with the amazing rocoto.  Pronounced [row-cóat-toe]  this pepper is a member of the capsicum pubescens species.   It is round, fat and sassy in its knowledge of how good it is.

It has a very distinctive flavor, reminding this writer of faint hints of mountain pine, or maybe juniper as in gin.  But, that is not its only distinguishing characteristic.  It has very thick and juicy walls, making it really good when diced.  It also has purple flowers and black seeds and hairy stems.  No other member of the pepper family  has this color of flowers and seeds or such hairy stems.

Rocoto often grows as a perennial.  In Cuzco, if you look, you will often see large plants ten feet or more tall, laden with peppers in greens which ripen to either red, yellow, or orange.    Since this pepper is native to Peru and neighboring countries there is a lot of difference from one plant to another in terms of look, size, and heat.  Sometimes the rocoto is as fiery hot as one could imagine, other times it can be almost delicate.

Not only is it a great pepper for making hot sauces, it is also great for stuffing.  The nearby town of Urcos has stuffed rocotos (rocotos rellenos) sold on its main square for passengers in the many buses that pass by.  One can also find these battered and deep fried delicacies filled with a mixture of chopped meat, carrots, and potatoes, but still retaining a fierceness from the pepper’s wall, on many menus in Cuzco’s restaurants.

Finally, Goya, on the Plaza San Francisco, had a sauce made of ground roasted peanuts, a local herb known ashuacatay, often called black mint in English, and yellow ají, also called ají mirasol.   This member of the capsicum baccatum species is generally purchased dried in the market and has its own rich, distinctive flavor that permeates many Peruvian dishes, as well as its distinguishing yellow color.    Ranks of wrinkled, yellowish or orangish pods fill many stands in Cuzco’s central San Pedro market, marking the importance of this pepper as a condiment.  Goya’s sauce is particularly good when combined with grilled meat.

These are but three, the Limo, the Amarillo, and the Rocoto, of Peru’s amazing variety of peppers.  But they are the most used.  These peppers were important and still are.  In Inca times, according to the chroniclers of the Spanish invasion, when people would fast for religious reasons, they would avoid, sex, salt, and ají.  You can imagine how difficult it was and is to go without any of those to exercise religious devotion.  Fortunately, in Peru, you do not have to do without hot peppers.  They abound.

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