Aji is the Spanish word for chile pepper, and the chile peppers that are omnipresent in South American cooking are Aji Panca and Aji Amarillo.
Aji Panca is a type of chile pepper that is commonly grown in Peru, and is one of the most common chile peppers grown along the coast there. With a dark red color, and a berry-like flavor and smoky overtones, Aji Panca imparts a mild, fruity taste that won’t overwhelm other flavors in a recipe.
Adding flavor without a lot of heat, Aji Panca chiles barely register on the Scoville “spicy” scale at 1,000 – 1500 Sc units. [By comparison, the Peruvian Aji Amarillo chile clocks in at 40,000 Sc!]
Aji Panca chile is a tasty addition to sauces [even chocolate ones!] and fish dishes. When you want a rich, smoky taste similar to, but less strong than, chipotle, use Aji Panca chile with chicken or pork. Use Aji Panca like you would citrus zest, adding to a dish just before serving, or whisk Aji Panca chile with lime juice to dress sliced avocado or fruit salad.
Aji panca is an essential seasoning for one of the most popular Peruvian specialties – anticuchos. A popular street food item made from beef heart (the idea of which made us feel a bit squicky), we adapted our Anticuchos Peruvian Kebab recipe with beef sirloin and an Aji Panca marinade.
Many Peruvian recipes call for aji panca paste. To make a paste from the powdered chile peppers you can buy at AllSpice, add a bit of near-boiling hot water and a splash of vinegar to the ground aji panca chiles. Stir mixture until the paste is smooth; add a little more hot water or vinegar to achieve your desired taste and thickness/consistency. You can store your homemade chile pepper paste in a closed glass jar, in the refrigerator, for up to 3 weeks.
If you prefer a hotter chile for your South American recipes, you’ll want to try the Aji Amarillo Pepper. Aji Amarillo is a common sunny, yellow chili pepper grown in Peru.
Still rather obscure in the United States, but ubiquitous in South America, Aji Amarillo chiles are Peru’s “national ingredient,” and feature prominently in Bolivian and Peruvian cuisine.
The Aji Amarillo [or “yellow”] chile pepper ripens from sunshine yellow to deep orange, and brings moderate to strong heat [40K Scoville units!]. When it is dried, the Aji Amarillo chile is also known as Aji Mirasol.
The fruity flavor of the Aji Amarillo chile is more subtle than that of the poblano [Ancho] chile – more full-bodied, reminiscent of raisins and sun-dried tomatoes. One food writer said of the Aji Amarillo, “It tastes like sunshine.” Another likened its fruity taste to blueberries.
As with the Aji Panca chile, you can easily make a concentrated Aji Amarillo chile paste with the addition of a little hot water and vinegar, thinning the mixture to your desired consistency. Use your chile paste as the base for a marinade, a fresh fruit or vegetable salad dressing, or as the beginnings of a vibrant, spicy sauce for pasta or roasted potatoes and vegetables. Aji Amarillo pairs beautifully with fruit, and is the predominant flavor in this fresh and fruity salsa.
In Peruvian cooking, the Aji Amarillo chile is everywhere, but especially in soups and sauces. Try Aji Amarillo in salsa, ceviche, pickling, sauces, or even a simple rice dish, to add color and a rich new flavor.
Amarillo or Panca? Although the level of heat, and the unique flavors, of these chiles diverge, both of these Peruvian peppers have a lovely fruity undertone. If you’re feeling a need to add a hotter chile to your recipe, opt for Aji Amarillo. If you want to make a milder dish, Aji Panca is your logical choice.