WHAT IS AJIACO?
Ajiaco is a “meal in a soup”. I cook it myself sometimes, but, apart from the fact that, however well it’s done, eating something at home, or even in a restaurant in your own country, is never the same or anything like as good as eating it in its own home. And Ajiaco’s home is Bogota.
WHERE DOES THE NAME COME FROM?
The name Ajiaco originates from a legend of the indigenous Muisca tribe of Colombia, and is a conjunction of the names of the native governor of the time, Cacique Aco, and that of his wife, Aj. Hence Aj-Aco. Originally, the soup was made solely of potatoes, onions, corn and guascas, and served only on important occasions. Since then, it has been influenced by European gastronomy through the addition of chicken, capers, avocado and cream, but always keeping its unique flavour.
Which at first might strike one as surprising, as the principal ingredients are potatoes. Three different kinds of potato: papas criollas, sabaneras, and tocarreñas, respectively yellow, red, and white. Each has a different texture, cooks differently, and makes its own contribution to the soup. Of the three, the papas criollas are the most important – and the ones that can’t be bought fresh anywhere outside South America. These tiny yellow wild potatoes grow at high altitudes, and they break up and dissolve almost completely as the soup cooks, thickening and imparting a wonderful richness to the soup.
It’s possible, however, to buy Papas Criollas frozen from Colombian grocers – few and far between, but at least they exist in London.
The other magic ingredient is the herb, Guascas. That can also be found (dried) in Colombian grocers, but in this case it’s not essential; oregano makes a reasonable substitute.
Apart from potatoes, the main cooked ingredients are chicken and corn cobs. Assemble all your ingredients, and it’s easy to make. First poach the chicken in water with onion, garlic and herbs, remove the chicken, dispose of the vegetables, adjust the seasoning, add lots of all three kinds of potato to the stock, simmer for until they’ve broken down, tear the chicken into pieces and return to the pot with the guascas, and simmer a bit more. The result is a thick potato and chicken soup, which is eaten with lots of sliced avocado, thick cream and capers – oh, and the corn cob. Simple but bewitching. You’d never imagine potatoes could be so delicious.
But, try as I might to make it at home, it’s never the same. Ajiaco really has to be enjoyed in Colombia. But if you can’t make it to Bogota any time soon….
INGREDIENTS (for 4 people)
- 1 litre chicken stock (or water and a stock cube!)
- 1kg skinless chicken breast
- 300g waxy potatoes (e.g. new potatoes, desiree)
- 300g floury potatoes (e.g. maris piper)
- 500g frozen papas criollas (from a South American shop)
- 300g long (banana) shallots (can substitute red onion)
- 2 corn cobs, each cut in half (so 4 half cobs)
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 30g dried guascas, tied into a bunch with thread or in a little muslin bag.
- Small bunch fresh oregano
- Small bunch of fresh coriander
- Salt to taste
- 2 avocados
- 100g capers
- 200ml soured cream
- In a large saucepan (big enough to take all the ingredients) poach (gentle simmer) the chicken breasts with the corn cobs in the stock for 30 minutes.
- Wash the potatoes and cut into cubes
- Slice the onion finely
- Grate or finely chop the garlic
- Remove the cooked chicken and corn cobs from the stock. Tear the chicken into smaller pieces with your hands. Cover and put to one side.
- Now put all the other ingredients into the stock – potatoes, onion, garlic, herbs.
- Bring the pan back to the boil and simmer, covered, for about an hour. Stir vigorously. The floury potatoes should have disintegrated completely – if they haven’t, keep cooking a little longer. You should end up with a very thick soup with lumps of the waxy potatoes still discernible.
- Remove the guascas (if you can find them!) and add salt and pepper to taste.
- Present each diner with a dish of soup with some pieces of chicken on top, and, on the side, sliced avocado, capers and soured cream. The idea is to stir those in to the Ajiaco to individual taste.
Ajiaco features in Oliver Dowson’s book, ‘There’s No Business Like International Business’, in the chapter ‘Week 2 – Day 2’.
Comments and suggestions are always welcome – use the comment box below or get in touch with Oliver via the links in the contact page