Ají de Gallina, the Ultimate Peruvian Comfort Food
Reflections on what makes exotic comfort food
One of my favorite travel food experiences is when I have a dish for the first time yet it feels like I’ve had that dish all of my life. That was definitely the case for ají de gallina.
Ají de gallina is a classic Peruvian stew made with shredded chicken and Peruvian peppers. It is traditionally made with Gallina or hen, but nowadays chicken is much more commonly used. Ají amarillo, Peruvian yellow pepper, gives the dish its distinctive comforting spiciness and yellow color.
With its creamy texture and well-defined flavor, this dish has a lot in common with a curry. Honestly though, when I overthink the comparison, the similarities evaporate. It’s possible that these two dishes simply just evoke the same emotional chord for me.
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One of the ways that you really get to know a dish is to try to make it yourself. Which is exactly what I did a few years ago. Check out the video for some funny moments as we try to navigate the Airbnb kitchen.
Making ají de gallina from scratch made me 1) appreciate having running water and 2) better understand the depth of flavors that the peanuts add. Since ají amarillo is the title ingredient, it’s easy for the role of the nuts (walnuts or peanuts) to be overlooked.
In the recipe, the ají amarillo is combined with peanuts (sometimes other nuts like walnuts are used), leftover bread, and milk which adds both texture and flavor to the sauce. The creamy sauce offsets much of the heat from the pepper, making it a comfort food.
Served with rice, ají de gallina is also traditionally garnished with slices of hard-boiled eggs and black olives. I avoid ordering a plate of ají de Gallina if the restaurant doesn’t include these two ingredients. I’m not sure why the garnishes matter so much to me, but little bites of olives and eggs with every few bites of the stew are just a part of the experience of eating ají de gallina for me. Maybe the garnishes are just signs that the cook is making the dish with care.
This is a dish I generally associate with home cooking, but I’ve certainly had good versions in restaurants.
It’s a step away from the classic comfort food version, but the most memorable restaurant ají de gallina I had was in the beach town of Mancora at a restaurant called Donde Teresa. The chicken was smoked, adding a new dimension to the dish. I appreciate that their version relied on great ingredients and exactly one twist instead of going too big and distorting the comfort aspect of the dish.
Unlike with other dishes, I don’t exactly where the best ají de gallina is in Lima (but I have an idea1). The truth is that I stopped looking for the best version of ají de gallina a while ago. For me, ají de gallina is the ultimate comfort dish, meaning that the best ají de gallina is the one in front of me. Or the one that was made especially for me (especially since I know how much effort it can take).
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Ají de gallina is one of 100 dishes that I feature in my guidebook, How to Eat in Peru. If you’re headed to Peru, please consider purchasing a copy.
I would just go to places known for their comida criolla. El Bodegon and Panchita come to mind.