At the heart of any Peruvian recipe or dish is the ají, the term Peruvians use to refer to chili peppers. Like other chili peppers, Peruvian ají peppers are also part of the family capsicum. In Peru, there is archaeological evidence that the aji dates back to at least 8,000 years ago. In other words, the many varieties of this spicy ingredient have historically been a part of the Peruvian and even Pre-Inca food culture.
Continue on to learn all about Peruvian aji peppers, the flavor base for many Peruvian dishes.
Exactly how hot a chili pepper or aji may be is measured by a number on the Scoville scale. This number is assigned by adding sugar water to a ground up chili pepper until you can no longer taste any spice. Unfortunately, the scale isn’t exact, and in many cases the heat in an aji may vary from pepper to pepper, even within the same variety. Also, keep in mind that what is hot to one person may not be to another. Another influence of the heat of an aji is the area where an ají is grown.
For a little bit of context here, a sweet bell pepper has a zero Scoville rating where as a jalapeño pepper comes in at a range of 2,500-8,000 Scoville units. When talking about the most popular aji peppers in Peru, each (with the exception of the ají panca) is hotter than the jalapeño. In fact, the ají amarillo is between 8-20 times hotter.
There are a number of aji peppers grown in Peru that are used to prepare different dishes, but there are five that are most widespread and considered essential to the flavors of Peruvian cuisine.
The ají amarillo is by far the most widely found and used in Peru. The aji is typically a yellow-orange color and long in shape. It has a bright, fruity flavor and is moderately spicy with an average of 40,000 Scoville units. The aji amarillo grows along the Peruvian coast, from Lambayeque to Tacna. The aji amarillo is the most commonly used aji in cooking and is essential to the flavors of ají de gallina, papas a la huancaina, causa and cau cau. As a condiment, this aji is mixed with mayonnaise and other ingredients to make the popular creamy aji sauce that is served with pollo a la brasa and other popular dishes in Peru.
When shopping for the aji amarillo in Peru, almost all markets and stores carry it fresh or as a paste. If you are in Peru, it is recommended to buy fresh simply because the flavor is better. Outside the US, the aji amarillo is sometimes available frozen in large Latin American markets, though it is much more likely to be found in a powder or paste form. Using the powder or paste allows those living outside Peru the opportunity to experience popular Peruvian dishes without having access to the fresh aji.
The ají panca is the least spicy of the popular aji in Peru, with a Scoville range of 1,000-1,500 units. The aji panca is almost always used in its dried form. When the aji ripens, it is typically a dark red or chocolate brown color. You will find dried, whole aji panca in most markets and also in a powder form which is widely used in cooking. This aji originates in the central coastal region of Peru.
This aji has a fruity, sweet and smoky flavor and is commonly used to make chupe and parihuela which are both typically seafood and fish soups. Aji panca also adds flavor to pachamanca, a meal that includes meats, habas (lima beans), potatoes and choclo that are cooked in the ground using hot stones.
The rocoto is definitely the hottest of all the Peruvian aji peppers with a wide range of 30,000-100,000 Scoville units. At first glance, the rocoto can be easily confused with the bell pepper—a mistake commonly made by newcomers to Peru who don’t discover the mix up until cutting into the pepper or eating one of the slender slices placed on top of a dish. The main difference in form between the standard bell pepper (or pimiento) and the rocoto is that the rocoto is much smaller and has a smoother shape than the typical bell pepper.
What makes the rocoto unique are the black seeds inside, which are responsible for much of the spice. There are two common rocoto peppers: the Rocoto de Monte and the Rocoto Serrano.
The Rocoto de monte is found in the central jungle in Peru and is what is commonly used to make the traditional dish rocoto relleno. This rocoto is larger in size and strikingly red in color. The Serrano rocoto is smaller and colored red, yellow or orange. It grows in the Andean highlands, especially close to Arequipa. You’ll find this pepper in Solterito and other dishes.
Most commonly, this aji is bought fresh in Peru, though it is also available in many markets and stores in a paste form as well. Though you won’t find the rocoto fresh outside Peru, don’t let that stop you from making Rocoto relleno, the most popular dish with this aji. With just a few changes to the recipe it’s possible to create a dish with similar flavors. Another popular method of serving the rocoto is as a salsa or condiment to add spice to a meal.
The charapita is a tiny yellow pepper found in the Amazon of Peru, most predominantly in San Martin. It is considered a moderately spicy aji, similar to the aji amarillo in terms of heat. The charapita is one of the most famous internationally as it is one of the first Peruvian aji peppers from the Amazon to appear in international markets.
Best known for its use in ají de cocona, a sauce made with charapita and cocona fruit which is used as a condiment with Amazonian dishes like patacones and juane.
This aji is a bit harder to find in Lima. If you want to cook with the charapita aji, the best place to check is in your local district market, such as Mercado No 2 de Surquillo.
When an ají amarillo is dried, it becomes ají mirasol. The aji is dried mainly for preservation, but it also concentrates the flavors of the aji, resulting in a deeper taste. Cooking the aji mirasol releases the flavor of the dried aji into the food.
The aji mirasol is most commonly used in cooking stews and is available in most markets and grocery stores in Peru.
The ají limo comes in a variety of colors: red, yellow, green, white and purple. Most commonly found in stores are the red or green varieties, with the random appearance of one of the other colors. This pepper is considered to be aromatic and has a pleasant amount of spice, around 30,000-50,000 Scoville units.
This aji is available fresh in most grocery stores and markets. It is not found dried or in a paste form. The aji limo is grown in Lambayeque, Piura and Tumbes. It is most commonly used to make ceviche and tiradito. Unfortunately, you won’t find this aji outside Peru, so to make these dishes outside of Peru you will need to make a substitution. Try using habanero, which is way spicier but has a similar fruit-like profile, or the serrano, which is similar in heat but missing the fruity flavor. If using the habanero as a substitute, use it sparingly and taste it before adding more as this chili pepper is quite a bit hotter.
Now that you know more about Peruvian aji peppers, what is the first dish you want to make or try? If you are here in Peru, most of the ingredients are easily found in local markets and grocery stores. If you live outside of Peru, this ultimate guide to buying Peruvian ingredients may help you find products so you can still enjoy Peruvian dishes in your own home. Have fun cooking and eating deliciously spicy Peruvian aji peppers!
All photos: Lyn Croyle