Peruvian food is hot right now, and part of that heat comes from aji amarillo, a sunset-colored chile pepper believed to be the backbone of the cuisine. Capsicum baccatum is one of the five families of chiles. Compared to C. annum—the family of bell peppers, jalapeños, poblanos, and New Mexico chiles—it's not that well-known. Though if you've ever had Peruvian food, there's a good chance you've had the most recognizable of this relatively unknown chile family: Aji Amarillo.
Aji amarillo is indigenous to the Andean country and its neighbors. The chile’s fruity perfume and assertive but not overbearing bite, along with its golden hue, give many Peruvian dishes their signature flavors and tints. Because the chile is nearly impossible to find in the United States, many expats rely on imported aji amarillo paste to re-create a taste of home. Various brands are in markets, but look for jars containing smooth, bright yellow to orange paste. Add a spoonful to soups or pasta sauces, or blend it with cream cheese or mayonnaise to enliven a spread.
What Does It Taste Like?
Native to South America, aji amarillo is a bright-orange, thick-fleshed chile with a medium to hot heat level. It's ubiquitous in Peruvian cuisine, working its way into soups and sauces, which are used in pretty much everything. Besides its phylogeny, aji amarillo is worth seeking out for its unique flavor, which offers a lot of fruitiness for its heat. It's a different kind of fruitiness from other chiles like poblanos: less sharp and harsh, more full-bodied, and a lot more subtle. If there were a chile to taste like sunshine, this would be it. It may sound odd to use the word "comforting" to describe a hot chile, but for aji amarillo, it seems fitting.
Forms of Aji Amarillo
Aji amarillo is available at Peruvian markets and some Mexican markets (as well as online) in fresh, canned, paste form, or dried. The paste (which is just boiled, blended fresh aji amarillo) is probably the most common, and is well-worth purchasing if that's all you can find. And since most sauces involving aji amarillo call for paste instead of minced chiles, it's certainly a time-saver.
How To Use It
Aji amarillo is most frequently made into sauces, either green (the famous dipping sauce at Pio Pio in New York City) or orange. The orange variety, thickened with dairy, mayonnaise, and/or some form of bread, is ladled on meat, poultry, fish, starches, beans, and vegetables. My version, tailored to kidney beans, is pretty bare-bones, with just a bit of cheese, sugar, and lemon juice for balance and a brief fry-up with some garlic to gain some depth of flavor. But this is a sauce that begs for customization.
Ground, dried aji amarillo is perfect for cooking rice, lending vibrant color and sweet, rounded flavor. You can also experiment using it in place of other harsher chiles in spice blends like chili powder for a fruitier variation. If you're wary about adding yet another chile to your pantry, keep in mind that aji amarillo tastes different from other more widely available capsicums. It's a perfect everyday chile to compliment a meal without overwhelming it, as versatile and inimitable as it is delicious.