Ají de gallina is the quintessential Peruvian dish: it is a perfect fusion of Andean and European cuisines. It has some roots in pre-Columbian times: the Inca people cooked a breed of chicken called the “hualpa” (which was renamed after Atahaulpa, the last Inca ruler, who was executed by the Spanish) with hot pepper. Ají amarillo was – and still is – the most commonly used pepper in Peruvian kitchens; and it is the key flavoring ingredient in this recipe.
However, it is also related to the Spanish precursor to manjar blanco, which was a cooked dish that included milk and almonds. The Spaniards added cheese and olives. French chefs who came to Peru in the 19th century may have changed the dish into more of a creamy fricassée, possibly adding the European use of a panada as thickening agent, and shredded chicken instead of the Quechua tradition of large chunks. Native chopped peanuts replaced the almonds as well. In short, each culture made its mark; and ultimately created an entirely new dish that is now uniquely Peruvian.
Ají de gallina is a treasured national dish. Every Peruvian home cook has this recipe in his / her repertoire, and adds a personal spin. It was my husband’s childhood favorite, and he says that it is a common favorite of many Peruvian children. His mother made it for every birthday celebration. Unfortunately, I have corrupted him: he now requests my braised beef short ribs with my top-secret mango-tamarind barbecue sauce! But that’s another post.
This recipe is traditionally made with non-egg-laying hens. Hen is older and tougher than the regular frying or roasting chickens that are commonly sold here; but is much more flavorful. You’ll need to boil the heck out of it to make it tender… but I promise, the flavor is well worth the extra time. I’m not one to promote the big-box stores… but you can often find hen in the frozen food section of that megalomaniacal corporation that starts with a “W.” If you can get a fresh hen at your local butcher or grocery store, so much the better. Use a whole roasting chicken if you must – but don’t use chicken breast! Bone chicken is essential to create a flavorful stock and moist meat.
This dish is usually served as an entrée at home, with both rice and potatoes; and as an appetizer in restaurants, with potatoes only.
* * Please note – there are several steps which require advance preparation and waiting time. * *
Please read recipe through before beginning!
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