Papa a la Huancaína

You win if you know why this sauce is yellow.

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December 01, 2020

Prep: 10min

Cook: 35min

Serves: 4

The gist.

Ceramic pots from 200 AD, a family exiled from Poland, and one of the highest railroads in the world. This is the story of the Peruvian dish papa a la huancaína, an appetizer that smothers a bed of yellow potatoes in a rich, creamy and spicy yellow sauce.

Some 1,500 or so years ago, somewhere along the northern coast of Peru, a local artist from the Moche civilization sat at her stone table and painted a depiction of a pepper onto a ceramic vessel. That painted pepper represents the same pepper you will be using in today’s recipe: the ají amarillo. I’ll tell you more about the ají amarillo soon, don’t you worry, just know that papa a la huancaína wouldn’t be the same without it.

As is the case with so many dishes in the world, the origins of papa a la huancaína are debatable. Everyone agrees it comes from Peru, no question there, but exactly where in Peru is the real question. In the 1800s, a family in Poland was exiled for being rebels and standing up to the Tsars. Where did they go? France. One of the children studied engineering in France, became obsessed with railroads, and for some reason decided his skills would best be put to use in Peru. He made the journey to the southern hemisphere and ultimately became the designer of the Trans-Andean railroad that runs through Peru.

I spent nearly every minute of high school and university history classes doodling in my notebook, so if you are bored at this point, don’t feel guilty and just skip ahead to the next paragraph. Anyway, back to the Peruvian railroad and how it relates to today’s recipe. There is a city in central Peru, east of Lima, called Huancayo. In Spanish, something that comes from Huancayo could be referred to as “huancaína.” Are you making the connection? Some people claim that cooks from Huancayo prepared papa a la huancaína to feed the construction workers building the section of the railroad near the city. While that seems logical enough, other people say that papa a la huancaína was actually a dish that was sold at train stations along the route to Huancayo. WHAT IS THE TRUTH?

The history tittle-tattle is over. As promised earlier, I will now tell you more about ají amarillos. The Spanish word “ají” translates to “chile pepper.” The ají amarillo refers to a specific pepper (the Capsicum baccatum for all you biology nerds). It’s grown along the Peruvian coast and is the most popular and most consumed pepper in Peru.

Unfortunately ají amarillo peppers can be difficult to find outside of South America. If you’re the luckiest and live near a market that sells fresh ají amarillos, I’m very jealous. If you want to make me even more jealous, leave a comment rubbing it in my face. The next lucky option is that you can find the peppers in the frozen section of a specialty shop that imports South American products. The next best option is ají amarillo paste, which you can buy online. I have never used it (I fortunately have access to the frozen option), so do a bit of research before using the paste in a recipe. Lastly, for those of you who can’t find or refuse to pay the shipping costs to get the paste, I’ve seen recipes that use a blend of yellow or orange bell peppers and habaneros. It’s been years since I’ve made this dish with habaneros, but I know they have a higher Scoville rating than the ají amarillo and are therefore much spicier. Remember that when substituting.

Once you have figured out the pepper situation, the only other product that can be tricky to get your hands on is the jar of Peruvian olives. These olives, called Botija olives, are purple and have a relatively strong flavor profile. Fortunately the olives are just a side ingredient to complement the primary dish, so you can experiment and use another strong black olive.

When I lived in Peru I ate papa a la huancaína regularly. I fell in love with the sauce. I’m not going to describe it because I really want you to make it and experience what it’s like trying it for the first time. There is another dish in Peru, ají de gallina, that uses the same sauce and combines it with shredded chicken. If you like today’s dish, try that one next. So good.

Enjoy!

Ingredients

Steps

(click each step as you go to keep track of your progress)

  • POTATOES
  • EGGS
  • SAUCE
  • ASSEMBLY

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Papa a la Huancaína

  • Prep time: 10min
  • Cook time: 35min
  • Serving size: 4
Ceramic pots from 200 AD, a family exiled from Poland, and one of the highest railroads in the world. This is the story of the Peruvian dish papa a la huancaína, an appetizer that smothers a bed of yellow potatoes in a rich, creamy and spicy yellow sauce.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 kg (2 lbs) yellow potatoes
  • 4-6 large eggs
  • 60 mL (1/4 cup) vegetable oil
  • 1/2 of a large white onion, diced
  • 5 fresh or frozen ají amarillo peppers, seeded, cored, and chopped (can use paste if needed)
  • 2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
  • 240 mL (1 cup) evaporated milk
  • 4 saltine crackers
  • 225 g (8 oz) queso fresco cheese
  • Arugula or green leaf lettuce, for serving
  • Peruvian Botija olives, or other strong black olives, for serving

STEPS

  1. *POTATOES

  2. Place unpeeled potatoes in a large pot. Cover with 5 cm (2 in) water, add 1 Tbsp salt, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to a low boil and cook for 25-30 minutes. You should be able to easily insert a sharp knife into the potatoes. While the potatoes are cooking, begin working on cooking the eggs and the sauce.

  3. Drain the potatoes. When they are cool enough to handle, peel the potatoes with the help of a knife blade. Slice the potatoes into 1.5 cm (1/2 in) rounds and set aside.

  4. *EGGS

  5. Place eggs in a medium saucepan. Cover with 2.5 cm (1 in) water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Once boiling, remove the saucepan from heat, cover, and let sit for 8 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare a large bowl of ice water.

  6. After the 8 minutes, transfer the eggs to the ice water. Let sit for 5-10 minutes before peeling.

  7. *SAUCE

  8. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Pour in the oil. Once hot, add the onion and peppers and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

  9. Add the garlic and cook for an additional 3 minutes.

  10. Use a spatula to transfer the contents of the skillet to a blender. Add the milk and blend until smooth. Add the saltine crackers and the cheese, and blend again until smooth. At this point you can adjust the consistency of your sauce if needed: use additional crackers to thicken, and additional milk to thin.

  11. *ASSEMBLY

  12. Arrange arugula or lettuce leaves on each plate. Position a layer of potato slices on top of the leaves. Pour the sauce over the potatoes making sure they are completely covered. Finish by adding boiled egg halves and olives. Serve and enjoy.

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