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The Aji Amarillo Buzz

By Marsha Fottler.

More food trends get started by ambitious chefs than you probably realize. The latest culinary fad is aji amarillo, which is slated to become the new chipotle of the food world. And none too soon; I was just getting the hang of pronouncing chipotle, now I’ll have a new challenge for the mouth in both shaping the words aji amarillo and adjusting to the flavor.

Aji amarillo is a yellow Peruvian pepper. The flavor is quite hot but distinctively fruity. Aji simply means chile and amarillo is yellow, even though these peppers turn to orange when fully mature.

The most famous Peruvian chef (in America, at least) is San Francisco-based Gaston Acurio who started the aji amarillo buzz by declaring that the aji amarillo is “the DNA of Peruvian food.” Apparently this all-purpose chile is a mainstay in the home kitchens of Peru where it is used fresh, ground to a powder or made into a paste.

The aji amarillo is used in salsa, ceviche, tapas and in entrees such as arrez con pate (a duck dish from Northern Peru) and leme saltade (beef tips stir fried with Spanish onions.)

Menu items using the aji amarillo are beginning to turn up in fine and casual dining restaurants. Lee Roy Selmon’s, for example, is currently featuring a mango shrimp summer salad ($10.99) that has an aji amarillo vinaigrette dressing that’s drizzled on greens paired with glazed shrimp, avocado, mango, hearts of palm and sweet plantain chips. The aji gives the dressing a jolt of kick and a flash of heat but not so much as to overwhelm the salad or compromise the refreshing nature of the blend of ingredients.

Aji amarillo is not widely available in grocery store chains yet. But as more and more restaurant chefs display this ingredient on their menus and as TV celebrity chefs on Food Network begin to use it on air, local sources such as Whole Foods, Fresh Market and Trader Joe’s will start stocking aji amarillo. Soon this little yellow pepper will become as familiar to us as arugula, mache, carambola, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, spaghetti squash or radicchio. You might even be able to score some aji amarillo at your local farmer’s market over the next few months.

If you want to get ahead of the buzz and be the first in your neighborhood to experiment with aji amarillo, order your supply online at sources such as amigofoods.com or gourmetsleuth.com. Check out Peruvian cooking web sites for recipes that use this intriguing little chile. It’s a culinary adventure.

-Flavors And More Magazine: August 2009

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