Soup is a national tradition for Colombians, it’s almost impossible to avoid when you order a set meal. It’s usually clear with vegetables and an obligatory bone floating about with a liberal sprinkling of cilantro on top.
You could be forgiven for thinking it’s simply a way for Colombians to recycle yesterday’s leftovers. Although, this may be true in large swathes of the country Bogotanos have their own very special ajíaco soup, which is a little different.
It dates back to the Muiscas’ time when this indigenous tribe, living high in the Boyacá plains, would make the potassium-rich broth to restore anyone feeling a little off-colour. The soup’s strong mineral content eases muscle aches, thanks to the three potato varieties –criolla, sabanera and pastusa – it contains. The Muiscas would add corn on the cob and the grassy guasca herb serving the soup in a scooped out pumpkin half.
Although the Conquisadores’ main objective was to find the Muiscas’ legendary gold, the charms of ajíaco were not lost on them. They added chicken and chili to the broth with a slice of avocado, cream and capers on the side. The soup is ideal for Bogotá’s cooler wet climate, the city is nearly 3,000 meters above sea level, where its heart warming properties make it a favorite family Sunday dish.
Bogotanos gravitate to Calle 11 next to Plaza Bolívar to taste the soup in some of the city’s oldest restaurants such as La Puerta Falsa. The restaurant dates back to 1816 and was a favorite with those attending some of the longer Cathedral masses, according to owner Juan Francisco Piñeros. Halfway through, they would slip out via a secret door and step into the restaurant to sample hot chocolate with bread and cheese, tamales (corn-based dough mixture with meat wrapped in leaves) or ajíaco soup. “I remember when I was young we ate it at Christmas. It’s a typical family dish of the house, however, now it’s becoming more popular to go to a restaurant to eat it,” says Piñeros.
His restaurant is famous for serving among the best ajíaco in town gaining a prestigious silver award from El Tiempo‘s late food critic, Scottish chef Kendon Macdonald. Coldplay’s Chris Martin and New York celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain are among some of the luminaries who’ve tasted La Puerta Falsa’s delights.
The restaurant belonged to his grandmother who left it to her three surviving daughters to run in four-month turns. Piñeros, a graphic designer by trade, took over the restaurant several years ago to give his mother and aunts a break. His older sister Marcela Tolesa runs the Antigua Sante Fe restaurant, also renowned for its ajíaco, just a few meters further up Calle 11.
Ajíaco has become a hit with tourists too who Piñeros says love the distinct quality of the soup at the fraction of a price you might pay in a European restaurant. He is upbeat about the growing interest in Colombian food now that tourists feel relatively safe about visiting the country.
“We have an amazing variety of great ingredients here and Colombian cooking has its own particular campesino style. It’s simple but comforting with delicate flavors and is not to be underestimated.”
Given the soup’s healing properties, it’s likely to come into its own for post World Cup hangovers.
El Ajíaco Santafereño
Here’s how to make it – courtesy of www.mycolombianrecipes.com.
3 Chicken breast, skin removed.
12 cups of water.
3 ears fresh corn, cut into 2 pieces.
¼ teaspoon of salt.
Pepper to taste.
2 chicken bouillon cubes
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoon chopped cilantro
2 cups papa criolla (Andean Potato)
3 medium white potatoes, peeled and sliced
3 medium red potatoes, peeled and sliced
1/3 cup guascas
1 cup heavy cream for serving
1 cup capers for serving
Place the chicken, corn, chicken bouillon, cilantro, scallions, garlic, salt and pepper into a large pot. Add the water and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and cook for about 35 to 40 minutes, until chicken is cooked and tender. Remove the chicken and set aside.
Continue cooking the corn for 30 more minutes. Discard green onion and add red potatoes, white potatoes, and the guascas. Cook for 30 more minutes.
Uncover and add the frozen papa criolla and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, season with salt and pepper.
Cut the chicken meat into small pieces and return to the pot. Serve the Ajiaco hot with capers and heavy cream on the side.