Destination Peru for one of the most emblematic appetizers of the country: papa a la Huancaina.
Papa a la Huancaina is an appetizer composed of thickly sliced boiled potatoes that are smothered in a subtly spicy velvety sauce called Huancaina sauce. This traditional recipe offers a balance of cheesy, spicy, salty, bitter, starchy flavors and textures for a delicious result.
Huancaina sauce is often found on Peruvian tables as an excellent accompaniment to many other dishes like pasta, fried yucca or chifle (fried plantains) for example.
One of the stars of the sauce is the spicy and flavorful aji amarillo, Peru’s most popular hot pepper. In Spanish, aji means chili pepper, and amarillo means yellow. However, the color of this pepper from the capsicum baccatum species changes to bright orange as it matures.
Aji amarillo, which is also called ají escabeche, is often associated with Peruvian cuisine. It is considered part of the country’s condiment trinity together with red onion and cilantro. Famous Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio named this moderately spicy and very flavorful hot pepper the most important ingredient in Peruvian cooking.
It is not only used in Huancaina sauce but also in aji de gallina (chicken is spicy sauce), causa rellena (layered potato dish), lomo saltado (stir-fried sirloin) and other traditional recipes.
Even though aji amarillo is the most famous pepper in Peruvian cuisine, other chili peppers are used such as aji panca, a dark red chile pepper with a smoky flavor, and rocoto, a fiery hot red pepper that looks like a small bell pepper.
What is the origin of papa a la Huancaina?
But back to our papa a la Huancaina! This recipe has a very interesting story, which is linked to the highest railway in the world at the time. This railway connected Lima to La Oroya in 1893 and Huancayo in 1908. The Qingzang railway in Tibet, which was completed in 2006, is now the highest railway in the world.
The story goes that the sauce was developed by a peasant lady from Huancayo who traveled from her farm in Huancayo to La Oroya to sell her potatoes to the miners and railroad workers.
Initially, she went to La Oroya to try to sell her potatoes, thinking she could get a better price for them, as the area was too elevated and cold for anything to grow, including potatoes.
However, she was not successful selling the potatoes at the price she wanted. So, she created this sauce using only the common ingredients that she was selling. A number of other people were selling similar dishes with potatoes covered with sauce, but her sauce stood out, partly because of the addition of hot peppers, or maybe because of the thickness of the sauce.
Her sauce was an instant success with the railroad workers. When they couldn’t find her, they used to say:
“¿Dónde están las Papas a la Huancaína?” (“Where is that Lady from Huancayo with her potatoes?”)
When the railroad was completed in 1908, it was decided that papas a la Huancaína would become the official dish commemorating the inauguration of the world’s highest railroad connecting Lima to Huancayo, a scenic 12-hour train ride!
How to make the Huancaina sauce
Also, traditionally, papa a la Huancaina is prepared with yellow potatoes, but white variety potatoes can also be used.
Saltine crackers (also known as soda crackers) are traditionally used to thicken the sauce, although I imagine you could also use breadcrumbs.
Queso fresco (farmer cheese) is also the traditional cheese used in the preparation of the sauce, although I have seen recipes using cottage cheese, cream cheese or even feta.
The spiciness of the aji amarillo is actually tamed and balanced by the sweetness and creaminess of the dairy ingredients including the queso fresco, but also the evaporated milk.
How to serve papa a la Huancaina
The usual presentation for the dish is to place the thick slices of boiled potatoes on top of some lettuce leaves, with a generous amount of the cheesy and spicy Huancaina sauce poured on top of the potatoes. The dish is served with halved or quartered hard-boiled eggs and topped with black olives, parsley and sometimes corn.
In the south of Peru, in the regions of Cuzco, Puno or Arequipa, the same dish is served with ocopa rather than Huancaína sauce. Ocopa sauce is made from toasted peanuts, fried onions and tomatoes, aji amarillo, cream or condensed milk, crushed crackers or dried bread, salt, and huacatay (an herb also called wild marigold or black mint).
Papa a la Huancaina is a great alternative to the classic and summery American potato salad, although it is more of an adult version with its delicious spicy sauce.
- 6 yellow potatoes , boiled and peeled
- 2 tablespoons aji Amarillo paste
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 4 saltine crackers
- 8 oz. queso fresco (farmer cheese)
- 1 cup evaporated milk
- Lettuce leaves
- Black olives , pitted and halved
- 3 hard-boiled eggs , peeled and halved
- Parsley , finely chopped
- In a blender, add the aji amarillo paste, oil and evaporated milk, crackers, farmer cheese and salt. Process until creamy.
- In a plate put a few lettuce leaves. Add some thick potato slices on top, and cover with a few tablespoons of the sauce.
- Decorate with black olives, hard-boiled eggs and parsley.