Bogotá is not exactly known for warm, sunny weather. In fact, legend has it that the name of one of the Colombian capital’s most cherished gastronomic and social traditions, onces santafereñas—a break from daily activities to drink hot beverages and eat baked goods—comes from the city’s cold weather. Allegedly, during Colonial times, when the city was still called Santa Fe, monks would stop their activities to warm themselves with aguardiente, the popular local liquor made of sugarcane and anise. To avoid directly mentioning the consumption of alcohol, they would refer to the 11 (or once, in Spanish) letters of the word aguardiente.
Maybe this is why most typical Bogotano dishes that have survived the passage of time, and remained prevalent in the city’s culinary tradition, are hot soups. Changua, an egg and milk soup, is perfect to survive a cold morning hangover. Cuchuco, made with wheat or barley, is ideal to fill your belly at a low cost. But it is ajiaco, the most popular of all of Bogota’s dishes, that can be found served on most occasions and can summarize the mixed heritage of the city.
At its most basic, ajiaco is a stew made with three kinds of potatoes, a South American herb called guascas, corn, and chicken. Even though there are also dishes called ajiaco in Chile, Peru and Cuba, those are spicy, while the Bogotá version is not. Ajiaco santafereño is thick, pasty, yellow, and probably developed from a potato, ají and corn soup that the local indigenous people, the Chibcha, used to eat. It was most likely when the Spaniards arrived that beef, chicken, and plantains were added to the recipe. But with time the ají, beef and plantains disappeared, avocado was added along with guascas, and ajiaco evolved into its current form.
It is worth mentioning that how modern ajiaco should taste is still hotly disputed, as practically every family has its own recipe and many add cream, capers, rice, or all three, to the mix. For some, adding these ingredients is sacrilege. For others, an ajiaco is not complete without them.
This is just one of many ways of preparing it (as told to me by my family):
3 lbs of chicken breast
4 ears of corn
1 lb of papa sabanera, a potato with purple skin, with a hard consistency
½ lb of papa pastusa, similar to Idaho potatoes
12 papas criollas, a small, yellow variety of potato, technically called solanum phureja. It disintegrates very easily and it is what gives ajiaco its consistency and color. If you can’t find these, substitute grated Yukon Gold potatoes.
1 branch of guascas (available online)
2 large avocados
Optional: cream and capers.
- Peel and slice the papas pastusas and the papas sabaneras
- Cut the corn cobs in half.
- Boil the chicken in a pot with enough water to cover the chicken. Add a few shakes of salt. When the juices of the chicken run clear when pricked with a knife, take the chicken out, but leave the water in.
- In this water, cook the papas pastusas, the papas sabaneras, and the corn for 30 minutes. When the potatoes are soft, add the papas criollas and the guascas.
- You’ll know the stew is done when the papas criollas have disintegrated and the soup has become yellow. Pull the chicken from the bones and place on top.
- Serve with slices of avocado, cream and capers on the side, in case people want to add them.
- Don’t forget to consume the soup while angrily debating the inclusion or exclusion of capers for a properly authentic experience.