100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 6, Aji de Gallina at Latin Bites
This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.
Photo by Francisco Montes Just like grandma used to make...if grandma was an awesome Peruvian chef.
It's been called the most important ingredient in Peruvian cooking, and a blogger for Serious Eats writes, "If there were a chile to taste like sunshine, this would be it."
The aji amarillo pepper, native to the regions surrounding the Andes Mountains, is put on full display in a number of dishes at Latin Bites, the refreshingly modern Peruvian restaurant with a focus on traditional flavors. It's actually redundant to describe aji amarillo as a pepper because aji means pepper. Amarillo, of course, refers to the yellow color of sauces made with the pepper, though the pepper itself, when ripe, is bright orange.
From the tiradito tres sabores featuring three iterations of leche de tigre with the omnipresent aji, to the ultimate in Peruvian comfort food, aji de gallina, nothing puts you in a Lima state of mind quite like aji amarillo.
Though the ceviches and tiraditos on the menu present aji amarillo in its purest form, my favorite dish--the one I order over and over at Latin Bites--is the classic aji de gallina, a dish thought to have its origins in French cuisine brought to Peru after the French Revolution. In this sense, it can be considered a fusion dish, combining Peruvian staples like aji amarillo with bread crumbs, milk, Parmesan cheese and peanuts to create a slightly spicy cream sauce.
Photo by Francisco Montes The chef plates the aji de gallina.
Tender, shredded chicken is first boiled in water spiced with bay leaves and peppercorns, then simmered in the peanut cream sauce for several minutes until the flavors of the aji amarillo and rich, nutty peanuts permeate the meat. The final product is a lovely golden yellow dish reminiscent of Grandma's chicken pot pie, if my grandmother had been an adorable old Peruvian woman.
It's served with a side of white rice, a hard-boiled egg and a few kalamata olives, which add a punch of vinegar to a dish largely devoid of acid otherwise. It's a smooth, comforting plate of food, made interesting and complex by the hint of aji amarillo with a hot, almost fruity and ever-so-mildly-smoky flavor.
The dish takes a while to prepare due to all the blending and simmering necessary to get just the right balance of spices, but just looking at it, you'd never know. It's only once you take a bite of the juicy dark meat of the chicken and pick up elements of cumin or turmeric or the hint of bay leaf swimming in mild ground peanuts and sunny aji amarillo that you realize just how clever the recipe is.
See the full list of favorites on the next page.