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Peru Meets Mexico in a Flavorful Hot Sauce for Tacos

Ground ajíes, hot peppers, with other ingredients appear on tables throughout Peru. They strike roots deep into the country’s ancient past, as they do in many other parts of America. In other places, such as in Anglo America hot sauces are also found more and more. Vendors with new concoctions spring up constantly in fairs, markets, and stores, offering the public a taste of their latest combination of hot, sour, and sweet.

Hot Sauce (Photo: David Knowlton)
Hot Sauce (Photo: David Knowlton)

While the sauces of Anglo-land tend to only strike a few notes, those of ancient America, Bolivia, Peru, and Mexico especially, tend to much more complexity, an orchestra of notes and a layering of flavours.

Recently, I decided to try something different. I wanted to use Peruvian ingredients and dishes to make up tacos, a taquiza or taco party, with Mexican technique and aesthetic. While the meats and accompaniments seem the star of tacos, that final touch, its crown, is the sauce

A good taco sauce in Mexico is laden with layers of flavor made not just from its combination of ingredients but from the techniques with which they are processed, cooked, and made into a finished sauce. For this one, I relied on ají panca a dark yet flavorful dried pepper that is at the root of Peruvian cooking and yet seldom is the base of table sauces. This ensemble player, combined with peanuts, garlic, onion, and the wonderful tomate con cola, tree tomato, or tamarillo, when prepared a lo Mexicano, in the Mexican way, gave a sauce that made you want to just eat it spoonful by spoonful and yet which complemented the meats and vegetable dressings beautifully, to make a whole that caused your palate to sing as the real star.

Here is the recipe for my salsa taquera, or taco sauce.

Ingredients (Photo: David Knowlton)
Ingredients (Photo: David Knowlton)


2 dried aji pancas

1/8 – 1/4 white onion

1 unpeeled garlic clove

1/4 cup raw, peeled peanuts

salt to taste (about 1/8 tsp)

1/2 to 3/4 cup tamarillo pulp (or one fresh tamarillo, peeled)

splash of vinegar

1 tbs. lard

Boiling water

Step One, prepare ingredients

Lightly toast the peppers over a flame or on a comal. Be careful. You do not want to burn them, only lightly toast them until they puff up. Place in a bowl and pour boiling water on top of them to soften them. Let sit for some ten to fifteen minutes. Slit. Remove stem and seeds and discard. Return peppers to water to continue softening while you prepare the other ingredients.

Toast the onion and 1/2 clove of garlic, unpeeled on a hot comal or under your broiler, until both sides are lightly blackened.

Lightly toast the peeled, raw peanuts on your comal or in the oven.  You want the raw out of them but you do not want them to turn brown.

If you are using fresh tamarillo you can also toast it so that it peels such that you can use the pulp.

Step Two: Grind the Sauce

In a mortar and pestle (molcajete) for best results place the raw half of the garlic, now peeled, and the salt. Grind into a paste. Add the toasted onion and continue grinding. Place one of the softened peppers in your mortar and continue grinding, incorporating it into your paste. Do the same with the other pepper.  Once they are ground, add peanuts and continue grinding into a mostly even paste. Incorporate the tamarillo pulp and grind. Add the splash of cider vinegar and water in which you softened the aji peppers and mix into the thickness or thinness you wish.

Tacos (Photo: David Knowlton)
Tacos (Photo: David Knowlton)

If you prefer you can do this process in the blender or food processor. Just add the amount of liquid you need and pulse to try to retain some texture.

Melt lard in a large sauce pan. Once hot, pour the sauce into the hot lard and stir while it cooks for two or three minutes. Correct salt and acidity, remove and let cool.

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