Meeting a Peruvian for the first time implies conversation on food. This is more likely with Peruvians than other nationalities. Whether they hail from Lima, Tumbes, Iquitos or Huancayo, Peruvians everywhere eagerly revert to the default theme of national cuisine, and they do so with unveiled intimation of pride. Anyone familiar with Peru understands the international clout their ceviche enjoys (I wrote a post about a great place to eat ceviche in Lima); but their culinary palette is broad and a conversation limited to ceviche is probably cliche. You might hear about tacacho or tallarines verdes; pachamanca or picarones; choclo con queso, chanco al cilindro, seco de res; they will talk about pisco and chilcanos, chicha morada and chicharron con camote. For committed travelers anxious for Peruvian savvy, understanding food in this country is as critical as speaking the language. In a way, it is the language.
A look at what constitutes Aji de Gallina
Aji de Gallina is a serious part of Peru’s gastronomic expression. It is simple to prepare, but yields a deceivingly complex taste that stays with you long after you’ve washed it down with chicha morada or emoliente. Aji de gallina is creamy, and mirrors the color of Hollandais sauce. Perhaps I am biased–I grew up eating Eggs Benedict–but even so, this is something else. Aji de gallina strikes a balance between sweet and sour. Cumin and turmeric complement the main ingredient, aji amarillo, which together build the dish’s piquancy. Boiled chicken shredded by hand into thin strands allows it to soak up more flavor, and renders the meal easy to eat with a rice accompaniment. I found this official Peruvian Aji de Gallina recipe, if you’re interested in cooking it yourself.
High end or low end?
It’s impossible to know which aji de gallina is the best in Lima. But I know where I go to get my fill, and it’s not an opulent restaurant in Miraflores or San Isidro. It’s a small market stand in Magdalena del Mar. I couldn’t tell you the name of the place; I’ve never bothered to ask. It’s a kiosk tucked away in the belly of the district’s central market. Here’s a map:
The kiosk is open on two sides. It’s tiny. You might recognize it by its chairs, or its counter paved in ceramic tiles. You’ll find it down a dark corridor, past a number of ceviche spots and vegetable vendors, scrunched between other similar kiosks pitching menus at 8 soles–it’s vital to ensure you’re in the right place. 8 soles in cheap. The difference between Paula’s food and other menus is significant.
Some days Paula doesn’t make aji de gallina. On several occasions I’ve arrived with high hopes of stashing goodness in my stomach, only to be greeted with a big smile and, “Ya no hay aji de gallina!” The food goes fast, even on days that aji de gallina isn’t on the menu. Even though Paula does aji de gallina best, her other dishes still outstrip any 8 sol menu I’ve ever purchased.
Distinct red and black words populate Paula’s whiteboard menu. I challenge you to find an aji de gallina as good as hers and for a similar price in Lima… it’s a fool’s errand, and you’ll waste more money than ten visits to Paula’s on the quest. I look forward to the weekends for the same reasons most workers relish a Sunday, but I can add to the list of reasons a visit to Paula’s Magdalena post.
Images that get a mouth watering
I always get papa a la huancaina or crema de rocoto as an entree before the main course. Paula knows my name now, and serves me up excessive mounds of perfectly separated grains of steaming rice from her massive rice cooker. Then she piles on the aji which drips like a lava flow. Cebada (a refreshing drink made from barley) accompanies the meal. Even a bad day becomes a good one.
How to find Paula’s kiosk
It’s a straight shot from the park, then hang a right.