Spiciness in sauces. Spiciness with tropical fruits. Spiciness in desserts and ice creams. Ranges of red and green, shapes of chilies, elongated, round and oval. The Ecuadorian Ají breaks any preconceptions of the traditional spicy taste of hot sauces, and although it is related to other chilly spices, its ancient amazon origin and its use, distinguishes the Ecuadorian Aji as a companion for main courses and sweet flavors.
Practically every town in the country has developed its own recipes and secrets to create the ají sauce, a spicy companion of Ecuadorian food. In traditional meals as well as in gourmet food, Ecuador, unlike other countries, has developed flavors to its most whipped and sweet typical dishes by incorporating authentic products such as tropical fruits and fine herbs in the seasoning. The sweetness of bananas is present in main courses in the coast, Andes and Amazon and it’s accompanied with portions of rice, fried plantains, yucca or llapingachos (fried potato cakes with melted cheese, served in the Andes), along with meats or seafood.
The strength of the Ecuadorian ají sauce depends on the type of spice used when it’s being prepared. From the 30 type of ají that exist in the country, the tiniest ones are the most concentrated and provocative. It’s impossible to think of the taste of ají without taking into consideration the side with which it is served that only enriches the taste.For example, a few cascaritas, a typical dish from Azogues in the middle of the country that consists of roasted pork rinds, baked pork meat served in long pieces and mote (hominy), place us in the heart of the Andes, in a city surrounded by slopes and hills, where Ají is always on the table.
An ají with chochos, onions and coriander will be served next to potatoes and pork or beef meat, typical in the Andes, while a heavy poncho protects one from the cold of the mountains. An ají with pickles or peanuts goes perfectly in a dish along with fried plantains and fish, while the sea breeze accompanies the lunch in any part of the Pacific Coast.
There are countless of ají sauces in every location or province in Ecuador. Tasting the ají is not a matter of courage, but a matter of suspicion. The flavors and aromas that are activated in the paths of the gustatory palate cause a pleasant burning sensation and a journey through the traditions and history of the places being visited; without a doubt an opportunity that everyone should experience. The multiple ways in which the ají sauce is prepared does not opaque the original flavor of the food. It’s not about withstanding the spiciness force, but rather of activating hidden flavors with ají.
Andrés Dávila, executive chef of “Casa Gangotena” in Quito, shares the secrets about Ecuadorian cuisine and the side dishes that go along with ají sauces,referring to the practicality and affinity of the products that can be combined. “What grows together, goes well together”, he affirms. The enjoyment of spiciness in both Ecuadorian and foreigners’ palate goes hand in hand with the region where one is. If there are fruits around, the ají sauce will be rather sweet. He ensures that there is no sense in replicating a recipe when it is from far away and does not belong to a place, which applies to ají sauces and all of Ecuadorian food. He finds that it is the variations that enrich Ecuador’s gastronomic diversity.
On the specific case of spiciness in our country, the restaurant that Dávila runs offers a summary of the different options of ají through six types of sauces, which strengthen in different ways the flavors of the food:
Ají with sambo squash seeds, a light green cream with a subtle smell and taste.
Manaba-style Pickled Ají, with the color of carrots and onions, perfect for accompanying fish; it is not so spicy but it gets hotter when biting on the guindillas.
Ají mixed with passion fruit, a spectacular yellow burst of extravagance, and its zest together with the sweetness of the fruit truly lightens up the flavors up.
Purple Ají with beets is a sauce original from the province of Esmeraldas, pickled with fruit vinegar, grated carrotsand pickle slices.
The famous orange Ají sauce with tree-tomato and chochos (lupines), is stronger since it is liquefied with onions, coriander and the sweet and exotic tree tomato fruit.
And the hottest and more pleasing sauce is the smoked ají, which leaves a lasting sensation in the mouth and is a bit more oily with a brownish color dotted with red.
Ají is usually used to accompany main courses and soups, but it has recently given an important break, by becoming a part of dessert and jam recipes. Mixing it with pineapple, mango or passion fruit is a true innovation of flavor in the sweet dishes that together with the spiciness it modifies the taste of each fruit giving it more zest.
Part of the construction of Ecuadorian identity from gastronomy, is to keep the recipes and uses transmitted verbally through generations, that have recently strengthened the sense of belonging in the country.
The tasting and use of ají in food brings up the flavors and takes you on a journey through geography and history of the Ecuadorian towns with specific and deep flavors. The spiciness does not take away the original flavor of food instead it strengthens it. Missing out on tasting ají sauces is missing out half of what the taste buds can experiment and enjoy.
Ecuador is nominated as Destination of the Year by the English magazine Food and Travel. To vote for Ecuador you must access the following link: www.foodandtravel.com/awards
The country was also nominated as South America’s Leading Culinary Destination by the World Travel Awards, along with 20 other nominations. The results will be published in August.