Aji de Gallina // Peruvian Spicy Creamed Chicken
The other day, I kept receiving emails addressed to “Gloria.” They were emails requesting me to do something for someone. I admit, I was irritated by the incorrect name. I dragged my feet to even complete the task they were requesting of me. I mean, if you cannot use my name why should I help you? Right?! Okay, the person is not my friend nor anyone I have ever met. My email was likely passed on and the first person might have given it along with my name. It really shouldn’t have bothered me, but to see it over and over again was unnerving. I finally completed the task and wrote them back, without any mention of “who is Gloria?” Her note of appreciation included my correct name without any mention of the previous errors.
One of Peru’s top dishes has a similar problem. It is called “Aji de Gallina” which leads you to believe that it is a stew made from hen. Rarely, if ever, have I eaten Aji de Gallina with gallina. Today it is really only made with shredded chicken. I prefer it this way. But, the name remains the same: Aji de Gallina. You would never hear “Aji de Pollo.” Names of dishes are incredibly important in the Peruvian kitchen and it is evident that there is more history to the original name than need to change it. So, Aji de Gallina it is!
Aji de Gallina is an interesting dish that I suspect was created to use up a few things around the kitchen like stale bread and extra aji amarillo peppers. Now it is a go-to dish for family visits and people visiting Peru or a Peruvian restaurant. There are certain flavors that you simply must taste while you are here in Peru. Flavors that are difficult to repeat elsewhere, ingredients never heard of before. Nevertheless, they are the “must try’s” for a trip to Peru. Aji de Gallina is probably at the top of the list. Number one answer to the question of “what should I eat when I visit Peru?”
The dish starts with boiling and shredding chicken. I use the same water (more like broth after boiling the chicken) to boil the aji amarillo peppers in order to quickly and easily remove the skin. The blender is used a number of times. First, to make a puree of the aji amarillo peppers and onions. Then to make a paste of soggy stale bread (appetizing, huh?) and finally, a paste of the toasted pecans. When I am trying to manage making this dish for a large crowd & am short on time, I will often start the night before by boiling and shredding the chicken and toasting the pecans. If these two things are done, I feel like the rest is a breeze to throw together.
Delicious Peruvian Spicy Creamed Chicken served over rice & potatoes - a MUST try when it comes to Peruvian food!
- 3 whole bone-in chicken breasts
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 12 aji amarillo peppers // Peruvian yellow peppers, seeds removed
- 3 medium onions, cut into thick strips
- 6 cloves of garlic
- 1/3 cup aji mirasol paste
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin (optional)
- 150 grams of toasted pecans
- 5 stale pan frances (about 4-5 cups of stale bread cubes or 12 saltine crackers)
- 1 1/2 can of evaporated milk
- Hot white or brown rice
- Boiled potato, peeled and sliced
- Hard boiled egg
- Botija olives (I personally don't care for the olives with this, feel free to omit!)
- In a large pot, cover chicken breast with water and add salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until chicken breasts are cooked through, about 30 minutes. Remove the chicken and allow it to cool, reserve cooking broth. Once cool enough, shred chicken into thin strips. (Peru versions often have very small bits & strips, I prefer mine medium-sized.)
- Add the aji amarillo peppers to the cooking broth and simmer until softened, about 20 minutes. Drain & reserve cooking broth. Once cool enough, remove the skins from the peppers. (They should slip right off!)
- In a blender, combine aji amarillo peppers, onion strips (sometimes I saute these before adding them to the blender) and garlic cloves. Add enough broth to blend well, about 1/2 - 1 cup. (This should be more of a liquid than a paste.)
- Using the same large pot (no need to wash, nor dirty other dishes!) combine the blended aji amarillo mixture with the shredded chicken and aji mirasol paste. Add the cumin powder if you are using it. The liquid should cover all the chicken by about 1 cm (about 4 cups). Allow this combination to simmer for about 10 minutes. (If I am using cold shredded chicken, then bringing it to a simmer will take some extra time. If I am making this all at once, I am usually still working with warm to hot ingredients so it comes to a simmer almost immediately.) (I will add a bouillon cube or two at this point if I do not have the reserved cooking broth or if I feel like the broth isn't flavorful enough.)
- While the chicken is simmering, combine bread cubes and evaporated milk in a medium bowl. Press them down with a fork in an effort to make sure the bread is completely moistened. Transfer this mixture to the blender and blend until it becomes a paste. (If you have to add a bit of the cooking broth, that is fine. Just remember you want a paste and not a liquid here.) Add this paste to the pot of chicken, reserving a bit in the blender. Add the toasted pecans to the blender and blend until it becomes a paste. (Again, if you have to add a bit of the cooking broth, that is fine. Just remember you want a paste and not a liquid here. Sometimes people will blend the bread, milk and pecans all at once but I find that leaves me with pieces of pecans so I have started doing them separately.) Add the pecan paste to the pot of chicken. Stir to combine everything.
- Bring the entire mixture to a slight simmer (do not boil). Adjust the salt if needed. At this point, the mixture should be pourable like a thick gravy - not to much like a paste and not like a soup. If you have need for a bit more liquid, add some of the cooking liquid. If you have need for it to be slightly thickened, crush a couple of saltine crackers into it. If you have need to tone down the spice, crush a few vanilla crackers into it (sounds strange but it works and no one will ever know!)
This may seem like a lot, but trust me when I say you will want leftovers!
I have made this dish in the US a number of ways. I have used dried aji mirasol peppers in place of aji amarillo peppers. Because they tends to be a little spicer, I would use 9 instead of 12. The aji mirasol should be soaked in water, then boiled, skins removed and then they can be blended with the onions. I have also used aji amarillo powder, but I found it not as tasty. Also, I have purchased fresh frozen aji amarillo peppers in latin markets in CA and used them in place of fresh aji amarillo.
This dish is fairly easy to double or halve. Remember you want 4 aji amarillo peppers and one onion per whole chicken breast.
Aji de Gallina is part of the 101 Reasons to Eat in Peru series (just in case you need more reasons than this!).