Whether you’re new to trying Peruvian food, or you’ve been eating it all your life, the creamy ají de gallina chicken dish is likely to tickle your taste buds. In all the right ways, every time. This super-classic Peruvian chicken recipe comprises a creamy, somewhat spicy sauce made with shredded hen or chicken breast, ají amarillo chili peppers, minced garlic, pecan nuts, parmesan cheese, bread crumbs and a dash of evaporated milk. All served over rice with a few slices of boiled potatoes. There is literally no dinner recipe more typically Peruvian than this one. And you’ll find that many a Peruvian will claim that their mother’s ají de gallina beats all others. Today it’s your turn to try your hand at this simple but satisfying recipe!
Ají De Gallina’s Bittersweet origins
The origins of many Peruvian dishes bring to mind the proverb “necessity is the mother of invention”. The simplest dishes made with at-hand ingredients are often the most enduring. And this is true of ají de gallina. The dish’s origins may be traced to a dessert called menjar blanc from Catalan cuisine, from as far back as the 14th century. Brought to Peru by the Spanish conquistadors, the original Catalan recipe was a kind of sweet stew made with adult hen breast, rice, almonds and sugar. It became the current-day recipe known as ají de gallina after incorporating the quintessential Peruvian ingredients of ají amarillo chili peppers and potatoes. The other ingredients include (evaporated) milk and slices of white bread or breadcrumbs to give it the right consistency.
Aji de Gallina is a perfect example of the power of simplicity
However, legend says it wasn’t some ingenious Catalan or indigenous Peruvian chef that created one of the most popular modern-day Peruvian chicken dishes: the slaves of the conquistadors get the credit. These unfortunate people received just enough food to survive. So they resorted to picking off pieces of leftover hen off the bone and mixing them with other leftovers. At some point, these leftovers happened to be menjar blanc.
Aji de Gallina is a perfect example of the power of simplicity. The dish comes from such humble beginnings but now occupies an important place in the now world-renowned Peruvian cuisine. Nowadays the adult hen breast is usually replaced by the more tender chicken breast which renders a very similar flavor. There’s some debate about which type of nut to use: some use almonds, others walnuts, but the most common nut to use is pecans.
A Variety of Ají to Suit Everyone
What makes cooking fun is that it allows you to experiment with recipes. It’s always good to try out new options or to adapt them to a different dietary requirement. You’ve probably heard of empanadas, the savoury pastry usually made with cheese or minced meat (a ubiquitous snack in most countries across South America). Now imagine an empanada filled with ají de gallina! It’s absolutely delish.
Popular variations of the ají de gallina recipe include replacing the hen (or chicken) with tuna, vegetables or mushrooms. If you’re lactose intolerant or vegan, you can omit the egg, evaporated milk and cheese, maybe adding some tofu to maintain the texture. For those on a gluten-free diet, substitute the bread or soda crackers with a gluten-free variety or you could replace it with soy or tofu.
Now, if you don’t tolerate spicy foods well, it is possible to leave out the ají amarillo, but it will certainly affect the flavor. And we can’t guarantee that Peruvians will even let you call it ají de gallina anymore! 🌶
Ají de Gallina
- 1 hen breast or 2 chicken breasts
- 1 onion chopped
- 3.5 ounces of Parmesan cheese
- 4 ají amarillo chili peppers
- 4 breadrolls
- 4 cloves garlic
- Black pepper and cumin
- 1-2 ounces of pecans
- A dash of evaporated milk
- 2 eggs
- 4 floury potatoes
- 2 cups of uncooked rice optional
- 4 leaves lettuce
- 4 black olives
- Salt to taste
- Fill a medium pot with sufficient water to cover the hen (or chicken) breast(s) and bring to the boil. Boil for about 25 minutes over a medium heat. Remove from the pot and once it’s cool enough, shred the hen. Set aside. Use the hen stock to soak the bread rolls until they’ve absorbed enough of the stock and blend in a food blender.
- Cut the ají amarillo chili peppers in half and remove the veins (ribs) and seeds. Holding them with a tong, grill the peppers directly on the fire until the skin is cooked and black in parts. Rinse the peppers and remove the skin, then chop roughly.
- In a frying pan, lightly fry the ají peppers, chopped onion, garlic and pecans. Transfer to a blender and blend.
- Pour the contents of the blender into a frying pan and add the shredded hen breast. Mix well and cook until it achieves the right consistency. Add the parmesan cheese and the evaporated milk just before turning off the heat.
- Boil the potatoes, unpeeled and with 3 tablespoons of salt and leave to cool.
- Boil the eggs and leave to cool.
- (Optional: Prepare the rice)
- Place a lettuce leaf on the plate, followed by 4 generous slices of potato per serving and a portion of rice. Serve the ají de gallina over the rice and potatoes. Top with a slice of boiled egg and a black olive.