As a child growing up in Colombia, Sundays were the best day of the week. That’s when we went to my Aunt Bela’s, where I’d be greeted by the most enticing aromas. The source would inevitably be a huge pot of chicken soup simmering on the stove. It’s called ajiaco, and I’ve yet to taste another chicken soup that can match its earthy aromas, hearty textures, and bright flavors.
Why would Colombians know anything about a cold-weather dish like chicken soup? Isn’t the country on the equator? Yes, but I lived in Bogotá, which is high in the Andes and is cold and damp all year. Ajiaco (pronounced ah-hee-AH-koh) is the perfect antidote to the weather. In fact, it’s a specialty of the region and one of Colombia’s most famous dishes.
Three elements set this chicken soup apart from all others. First, there’s the broth, which is thick and full-bodied, almost like a stew, thanks to the addition of three types of potatoes.
Second, there’s the aji (AH-hee), a spicy condiment that gives the soup some fiery punch (the aji goes into the individual servings, so each person gets to control the intensity). Aji is simply a minced mixture of chiles, onions, tomatoes, vinegar, and cilantro, and it takes less than a minute to make in a food processor.
Finally, a bowl of ajiaco isn’t complete without its garnishes: capers, diced avocado, sour cream, and chopped cilantro. You’ll be surprised at how these varied ingredients come together to give the soup an entirely different dimension. Since I live in South Florida now, I don’t often get the urge to make this unusual soup, but the moment we’re hit with a cold spell, my family knows to look for the ajiaco pot on the stove. With the chicken, vegetables, and potatoes, it’s a complete meal in a bowl. We eat it as a main course for dinner, with perhaps a small salad beforehand.
A few ingredients turn a basic soup into a special meal
Chiles: Colombian cuisine isn’t as spicy as some others in the region (think Mexican), but we do use our share of chiles, most often in our aji sauces. Scotch bonnet and habanero chiles tend to be our first choice, but be warned: They can be intense. They’re members of the Chinense species, which has hundred of varieties, some of which are nonpungent. The heat level of an average habanero is hot but varies immensely; typically, it ranges between 80,000 and 150,000 Scoville units. (The Scoville scale measures the amount of heat, or capsaicin, in chiles; it runs from 0 to 577,000 units—the hottest Chinense chile ever measured.) To give you some perspective, that means a habanero is 20 to 50 times hotter than a jalapeño, whose heat level is also quite variable (between 2,500 and 10,000 Scoville units). In any case, if you’re not hot on heat, use fewer of these chiles and add more cilantro to the aji.
Potatoes: Traditional ajiaco calls for three kinds of potatoes. For color and flavor, Colombian cooks use a tiny yellow potato called papas criollas. You might find them sold either frozen or jarred in the U.S., but I avoid them in that form. Instead, I use Yukon Golds, whose buttery yellow flesh makes them an excellent substitute. Next, we use Idahos or russets. These high-starch potatoes break down quickly during cooking and become part of the broth, giving it a thicker, richer consistency. And we use red potatoes for the opposite reason. They’re low in starch, and they don’t fall apart when boiled. This ensures that the soup has some nice size pieces of potato, giving the ajiaco a more interesting texture.
Cilantro figures prominently in ajiaco. It infuses the broth, and a sprinkling of chopped leaves garnishes each bowl, giving the soup a fresh, tangy accent. Cilantro also counters the chiles’ heat, playing a vital role in my aji recipe.
Sometimes called Chinese parsley or fresh coriander, cilantro needs tender handling. When you get it home, remove any metal ties and pick out any decaying or yellowing sprigs, which would cause the rest of the bunch to rot. Wrap in a barely damp paper towel, put in a plastic bag, and refrigerate. Wash and dry just before using. A fresh, healthy bunch should last about a week.