A soloist’s brightness and verve may make an evening glow but, no matter their talent, the evening would not shine without backup musicians. In Peruvian cuisine three hot peppers are stars of the stage front, while one guards the rear with its depth and aroma. Of all the major peppers– rocoto, ají limo, ají amarillo, and ají panca--only the chocolaty colored, red pepper called panca can build a musical foundation.
Peru is a land of hot peppers. They have been here for thousands of years. Though its cuisine is made from immigration and blending, the kind of mestizaje (mixing) that many elites celebrate, its peppers are like chullo wearing Indians, native and hard working, They still do the heavy lifting and among them nothing works harder than ají panca.
Despite the tens of thousands of varieties of peppers around the world, from five domestic species, Peruvian cuisine still builds its culinary ensembles from its indigenous peppers, as if the Spanish had never come.
Furthermore, Peru has peppers from three of the five major domesticated species while Mexico, for example, relies generally on only one despite the enormous variety they tease from it. The northern chiles are capsicum annum, while Peru´s rocoto is c. pubescens and its stellar ají amarillo (escabeche) is the floral c. baccatum.
The final species contains the diva Limo as well as the musical foundation, the ají Panca. This species is misnamed. It is called capsicum chinense or chinese pepper when it really should be amazonense since it probably originated in the basin of that enormous river that drains most of eastern Peru.
While c. chinense is famous for its extremely hot peppers–it claims the hottest known today (the Moruga Scorpion and the Bhut Jolokia), and the famous, piquant habanero, it also has very mild and flavorful peppers like Peru’s ají panca.
Interestingly there is not much of an established language to talk about flavor when it comes to chiles. The language is one of heat, the burning of the receptors in your tongue from capsaicin that is the chemical from which pepper spray is made. It is generally measured in Scoville units.
The Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University lists the orange habanero at 210,000 Scoville units and the ají escabeche at 17,000. While they do not have it listed, other sites claim the ají panca comes in between 500 and 1,500 Scoville units.
Nevertheless, there can be wide variation of heat level within varieties of hot peppers depending on soil and climate conditions as well as genetics. And, in wild peppers it has been argued that the presence of pests tends to lead to a dominance of genetics producing heat while in ares without many pests the peppers of the same species and varieties are quite mild.
But humans like heat. As a result, we can see the Bhut Jolokia a natural hybrid on a c. chinense base checks in, according to many people, at over a million Scoville units.
For the cook, however, heat is far less important than flavor. The stinging of the tongue and mouth does produce for many aficcionados a pleasant sensation, but the chef will balance it with the enormous range of colors and flavors that can come from the skillfull use of the different, specific varieties and their possibilities for combination.
There is not a standard language to describe flavor. To prepare for this article I made sauces from three peppers (I blended the dried peppers in water and added a little oil and salt). These were the ají panca, the ají mirasol (or amarillo), and for comparison a Mexican guajillo, a very common red chile and Mexican workhorse.
Of these the guajillo had a bright scarlet color. Its flavor was mild and almost sweet, though no sugar was added. It has a lightness that combines so beautifully with rich ingredients to make good red enchiladas, especially when the acidity and fruitiness of lime juice are added to it.
The ají amarillo was a yellow tending to beige, and had a very complex flavor, far more than the guajillo. It’s flavor was floral, to be sure, but a whole bouquet of flowers with bright, high notes and some musky depth.
Peruvian chefs will often darken the flavor of ají amarillo by toasting it or by cooking the sauce leading it to develop a nutty flavor. Mexican cooks accomplish something similar, imparting a smokiness as well, by searing or roasting the chiles briefly before soaking and grinding them.
Then came the ají panca. It had a rich mahogany color, an auburn of reds and dark browns. Its flavor was spicier than expected, given its Scoville reputation. It is ranked like the guajillo in heat but these were much hotter than the guajillos if less than the ají mirasol (also called ají amarillo).
At first taste, I could perceive a sharpness that is not from heat and is common in Peruvian chiles (better said ajíes). And then the complexity of its flavor and aroma it me. It has a central flavor that is dark and almost musky. It seems like the result of tomatos cooking with meat for a time. But it also has notes reminiscent of allspice if not identical and a herbal hint like a light oregano.
The two Peruvian peppers overwhelm with the complexity of their flavors.
The panca is frequently married in Peruvian cooking with meats. It forms the base of marinades for the making of anticuchos, as well as the key for pot roasts, beef or pork roasts in the oven, a pork stew (adobo), and an enormous range of other dishes. Its broad intensity darkens and thickens in flavor as cooks and makes a wonder in combination with meats or pulses.
Not surprisingly, chefs often combine it with the yellow ají to get an even more complex set of flavors and a different palette of colors. An example is the recipe for olluco with jerky published here by The Sunday Chef
Ají panca truly is the musical workhorse of the opera that is Peruvian cuisine, it is the choir, as well as the cellos and violas. There would be no music without it.