Looking somewhat like a red pepper, but with thicker, juicier walls, Cuzco’s favorite rocoto is a pepper on steroids of flavor and heat. One of the five domesticated species of peppers, rocoto (capsicum pubescens) may well be the least known outside of its original highland home and yet it is one of the most flavorful of peppers and is absolutely necessary for Cuzco’s cuisine.
Botanists describe the domesticated peppers as belonging to five species. Capsicum annum is the most common and represents most of the chilies known in the world, although the famous tabasco sauce slowly finding its way onto ever more tables in Cuzco is made from the tabasco pepper which is capsicum frutescens. The habanero pepper comes from a different species, the capsicum chinense.
In contrast the Andes have the delightful and fragrant capsicum baccatum of which the yellow ají is a representative and, of course, the rocoto. These latter are far less commonly known around the world despite their amazing colors and flavors. They are key ingredients for Andean cooking.
The reason for this skewed distribution probably has something to do with history and problems of commercialization. The botanists argue that all domestic peppers originated in the Andes where they have an ancient record of use going back thousands of years although there is some speculation about wild capsicums in Central America and domestication. And there is some thought the c. chinense may come from the tropical lowlands of South America.
Just as corn came south into the Andes from Mexico at an early time, it looks like peppers went north to where it is hard to imagine Mexican cuisine without chilies. Mexico and the Caribbean were where the Spanish first arrived and from which they first took hot peppers with them back to Europe. As a result, the peppers most common around the world, c annum and c. chinense, were those commonly found there. The Spanish were key to their early distribution to every continent where they have since taken off to become one of the most important condiments on earth,
But the Peruvian peppers mostly stayed at home.
Capsicum pubescens, the rocoto, is unusual in many ways and diverges significantly from other peppers. It is known for being unusually hot, reportedly between 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville units. Evidently it has a distinctive combination of capsaicinoids, the chemicals that make peppers hot, such that its heat tastes different. Furthermore, the rocoto has a flavor that is reminiscent of pine.
It has thick, juicy walls, and black or dark brown seeds. No other pepper has seeds of this color nor do they have purple flowers like the rocoto. In addition, the stems of the rocoto look hairy which is what gives it the name pubescens.
The noble Mestizo, Garcilaso Inca de la Vega, in his Royal Commentaries of the Incas writes that the Inca preferred to have uchu, as they called hot peppers, to condiment all their meals, unless they were fasting. He even went so far as to say “they will not eat without uchu” He then described the rocoto, which he called the most common of all the Peruvian peppers. “It is thick, somewhat long, and without a point. They call it recot uchu, which means fat pepper.” Garcilaso continued to describe how the pepper was used. “They eat it ripe or green, before it takes on its perfect color, which is red.” (Comentarios Reales p 80).
Today, in Cuzco, the rocoto continues to be the most commonly consumed of peppers. It is produced locally. Many people have a rocoto plant in their gardens, where it grows to a bush more than two meters tall although some spread like vines. To get a rocoto, they just have to step out of their door and grab one or several from the bush and use them fresh, since they do not store well.
The common sauce in Cuzco, uchukuta, also called llantán, is made with rocoto and the indigenous herb huacatay. Stuffed rocotos are an important festival food. But just sliced and diced, the rocoto can accompany meals and bring pungency to a meal.
In fact, though the common word for hot pepper is ají in Spanish, a word that originated in the Caribbean, or uchu in Quechua, rocoto increasingly is the word used for any fresh hot pepper, especially if it is red. It is not solely used for capsicum pubescens.
In Cuzco they talk about there being three kinds of rocoto. There is the rocoto from the garden, the common or ordinary one.
Then there is the rocoto from Marca Pata, a district in Cuzco’s Quispicanchi, province. This rocoto is known for being very good and very hot. It grows in the upland tropics in small, family plots, and is then commercialized informally to Cuzco and elsewhere, even though there are currently projects to develop its produciton and commercialization as an agroindustry.
Finally there is the rocoto called marate. This is the hottest of all and is a small, wild pepper of varying shape. When longish it is also called monkey penis and pinguito de mono. One variety or another of this is consumed in much of Peru. However, though it is not a capsicum pubescens, it is considered a rocoto.
Perhaps the signature rocoto dish, is the stuffed rocoto. Though claimed by Arequipa, it is made differently in Cuzco and is as Cuzcqueño as Saqsayhuaman. In any case, the rocoto is so Cuzqueñan that it figures in a poplar Quechua rhyme recently published by Allison Krögel.
k’aspi chupacha …. Puka uchu!”
“Guess what, guess what?
What could it be?
Red little old lady,
[with] a little wooden
tail… Red [rocoto].”