One of Colombia’s great contributions to the world of gastronomy is Ajiaco, and soup made from three types of Andean-grown potatoes: Pastusa, Sabanera, Criolla. Throw in the pot some guasca leaves, shredded chicken breast, sour cream and capers, and there’s nothing dull about this potato soup. In Colombia, potatoes are the protagonists of a culinary lineage that extends across Ibero-America, Spain, and Middle East.
From Seville’s taperias to Barcelona’s potato and anchovy salad bars, Spain’s great kitchen achievements are mostly potato-inspired. The tortilla española (Spanish potato cake), patatas bravas (spicy potatoes) and huevos estrellados (Crashed Eggs and potatoes) are served up in fancy Bogotá diners as international dishes when in fact, they should be branded “Made in Boyacá,” after the country’s largest potato-growing department.
Even as early as the 16th Century, the Colombian staple was present at every table of European social strata. Well, just the two: those who owned the land, and those who worked it. The democratization of the potato undoubtedly begins at Plymouth Rock with the Mayflower pilgrims. This generous lot shared everything from corn to cranberries and North America’s first seasonal solanum.
But they probably didn’t share out of the goodness of their hearts or because of deep-rooted religious faith (the potato is not mentioned in the Bible). They shared because they needed to survive the first winter.
And this brings us back to Colombia, a potato growing nation with more than one hundred varieties, some of which, have yet to make it from field to market. Although the numbers are sketchy, Colombia’s annual exports of frozen potato range near 800 metric tones. Compared with the rising prices of other commodities, potatoes don’t really influence the bottom line of the GDP and Colombia maintains a low potato profile.
An Ajiaco is a celebration of the Andean table. On any given Sunday, families gather around a table to enjoy this hearty soup where criolla, sabanera and pastusa are peeled, boiled and transformed into a liquid mash of flavor. And it is difficult to replicate an Ajiaco beyond the limits of Bogotá given that the guasca leaf is endemic to the country’s high altitude orchards, and readily found in markets, alongside culantro and parsley.
As a uniquely Colombian dish, the secret of making an Ajiaco is time, from boiling the sweet corn to shredding the chicken breast. Average preparation time: 2 hours.
Make your own Ajiaco:
2 lbs. papa criolla, chopped (or substitute Buttery Yellow potatoes)
1 lb. papa pastusa, rinsed and peeled (or substitute Russet potatoes)
1 lb. papa sabanera, rinsed and peeled (or substitute Red potatoes)
1 white onion, diced
2 ears of corn, halved
1 large chicken breast
1 bunch guascas (or substitute watercress)
2 cubes chicken bouillon
ají (cilantro-based hot sauce)
Place all ingredients except for capers, cream and hot sauce into a large pot with water and bring to a boil.
Once chicken is cooked, remove and shred. Set the chicken aside.
Continue cooking until papas criollas (small yellow potatoes) have almost completely dissolved and corn is tender. Add chicken. Serve with capers, cream and ají to taste.