One of the truest joys of cooking recipes from around the world is when we come across a special herb or spice that is truly unique in taste.
Granted, we didn’t really expect to find such an ingredient when we first came across ajiaco, but lo and behold, there is guascas.
And indeed, guascas (and subsequently the ajiaco) brought us great joy.
What is Guascas?
There’s an old saying that goes “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
In a way, that saying unfortunately can apply to the guascas herb. Guascas, or galinsoga parviflora as its scientifically identified, is an herb and distant cousin of the daisy. To much of the world, the herb is actually considered a weed. In the US and Britain, for example, guascas might be commonly referred to as a “potato weed.”
But to many, guascas is and has been an essential herb for a long, long time. The plant had been cultivated by aboriginal Andean peoples – more specifically around regions that are now Peru and Bolivia – well before the arrival of the Incans in the 13th century.
With the arrival of the Incans and then the Spanish in the 16th century, ingredients like guascas as well as the potato (another staple ingredient in ajiaco) spread rapidly throughout what is now Colombia and Ecuador as well. By now, guascas is still heavily used and is undoubtedly anything but a weed to all Andean cuisines.
How Ajiaco Got Its Name
Before diving into the recipe itself, there are two interesting theories for how ajiaco came to be called what it is.
The first theory comes from an old legend of the Muisca people, a prominent aboriginal group in Colombia’s central highlands before the arrival of the Spanish. According to legend, there was a benevolent chibcha (the language and culture of the Muiscan people) leader by the name of Aji, who also had a beautiful wife by the name of Aco. Aji and Aco would provide this soup to their people and were thus honored by having the soup named for “Aji y Aco”… or “Aji and Aco.”
Another theory comes with the arrival of the Spaniards. When the Spaniards arrived, they would append an “aco” suffix to any dish that was considered indigenous and aboriginal. While aji, or a special type of hot sauce, as we know it now isn’t prominent in this recipe, the inclusion of black pepper in ajiaco might justify why the Spaniards named this recipe ajiaco as they did… provided they actually were the ones to name it.
About the Recipe
By combining three staple ingredients from the national cuisine, ajiaco is as quintessentially Colombian as it gets.
Every ajiaco must have guascas, corn and a hearty helping of potatoes. Considering that South America is the original home of the potato and were only made ubiquitous by the arriving Spaniards, you can safely expect to find potatoes in plenty of South American, and especially Andean, recipes.
In ajiaco, there are a variety of different potatoes used. The most traditional to the region is the papa criolla, which you might find in grocery stores as “Andean potatoes” if you’re here in the US like we are. Otherwise, fingerling and small yellow potatoes will do just the trick. Additionally, you’ll need some bigger beefier potatoes to add to the fun as well. Think along the lines of russet or big red potatoes.
In most modern ajiaco recipes, you’ll commonly find chicken included as an ingredient. Technically, chicken can be considered a “later add” to the traditional ajiaco recipe and was a contribution from the incoming Spaniards. Especially if you’re looking for a more vegetarian fare, ajiaco in its truest sense is perfectly fine (and was actually made) without chicken.
Making ajiaco is incredibly simple, as you’ll see in the recipe below. You simply start by combining the potatoes and any additional vegetables (note: not the corn yet) into a stockpot and lightly heating them together. Add your broth and boil the ingredients together, eventually adding in the guascas and corn midway through. Towards the end, as your ajiaco is almost done and your potatoes are nice and soft, you can start to mash them and mix them into the soup in order to thicken the consistency of the broth and the overall soup.
Of course, the actual ajiaco soup is only half the story. With every bowl, there need to be a set of delicious accompaniments to go with it! Most commonly, ajiaco will be eaten with some avocado, sour cream, capers, and bread and butter if you’d like. Again, you can also have chicken to go in/with your ajiaco, but it should be treated more as an accompaniment than as a staple ingredient to the dish.
Our Take on the Recipe
This changed involved removing the chicken from the recipe (obviously) as well as swapping out the chicken bouillon cubes. Instead, we opted to make a homemade vegetable broth by boiling leftover stems from vegetables with some other aromatics and spices.
While guascas itself is a very aromatic and strong in taste, we found that adding fresh bay leaves to the soup added another dimension of flavor to the ajiaco as well. Also, simply because we enjoy adding a nice added kick to any recipe we come across, we added a finely chopped green chili to the recipe as well. The chili itself was partially deseeded, however, so the added kick was to some degree muted as well. For your own cooking, the chili is totally optional for if you prefer (or don’t prefer) added heat to your soup.
Finally, some of the biggest adjustments we made wasn’t to the ajiaco itself but rather to the accompaniments. For one, instead of sour cream, we opted for full-fat Greek yogurt as the healthier option. We also came across an oddly tasty mixture of the ajiaco with a modified version of a Colombian salsa verde. While testing another Colombian recipe where the salsa verde was to accompany meats, we tried adding a bit to the ajiaco and hey… they worked pretty well together!
Nevertheless, despite all the tweaks and additional ingredients to the recipe, it was still the guascas that was the star of the show. It’s possible to make ajiaco without it, since there are ways to substitute the ingredient, but it just won’t be the same.
We’d very highly suggest you try and make it with.
Have you tasted guascas and/or ajiaco before? What did you think? Comment below!
- 2 red potatoes
- 2 waxy golden potatoes
- 12 papa criollas (Andean potatoes), or substitute fingerling potatoes instead
- 2 big carrots, peeled and cubed
- 1 serrano chili pepper, sliced (optional)
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1 onion, diced
- 4 bay leaves
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 6 cups vegetable broth
- 2 heaping tablespoons of guascas
- 2 ears of corn, cut into 4 pieces crosswise
- 2 scallions, chopped
- 1 avocado, cut into slices
- 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
- ¼ cup full-fat Greek yogurt
- Modified Salsa Verde (1/2 diced onion, 2 cloves minced garlic, 1 handful of parsley finely chopped, 2 tablespoons white vinegar, and 1 tablespoon olive oil)
- Take a large stockpot over medium heat and add your red potatoes, golden potatoes, fingerling potatoes, carrots, garlic, onion, and chili pepper into the pot.
- Mix around for 5 minutes to warm the vegetables up and enliven the flavors, occasionally adding your tablespoons of olive oil
- After 5 minutes, add your 6 cups of vegetable broth to the soup, ideally submerging all the ingredients into the broth. Bring the entire broth to a boil before lowering the heat to a medium-low setting. Let the soup simmer for roughly 20 minutes
- At the 20 minute mark, start to push some of the potatoes against the edges of the stockpot in order to break them up. This will thicken the soup
- After mashing some potatoes, add your guascas and stir thoroughly into the soup. Continue to let the soup simmer for another 20 minutes
- After 20 minutes (and 20 minutes total of simmering), add your ears of corn and scallions. Mash up a few more potatoes if you can, and let the entire ajiaco simmer for another 15 minutes
- As the soup simmers in the final 15 minutes, begin to prepare your garnishes. If making the modified salsa verde, prepare that first in order to let the flavors mix together
- After the garnishes are ready and the soup is done simmering, take off heat and serve