For me this is the ultimate comfort food, and it’s also my favorite food from my years overseas. It’s a great weekend soup, but it’s also a celebration meal for the Bogotanos who often make very large pots of this soup for festive occasions such as Christmas. They typically serve the soup in black bowls just like the one in the photo, sitting in a basket because the bowls are rounded, not flat, on the bottom. Sides include rice, capers, and avocado. I’ve missed the wonderful ajiacos I enjoyed in Bogotá, so this year I wanted to have it as part of our Christmas celebration.
There are several versions of ajiaco in Hispanic culture. Ajiaco Bogotano has chicken, three different kinds of potatoes, corn on the cob, and the herb guascas. The potatoes are papas criollas, sabaneras, and tocarreñas, or yellow, red, and white potatoes respectively. Of the three, the papas criollas are the most importantfor this soup. They are tiny yellow wild potatoes that grow at high elevations, and they break up and dissolve almost completely as the soup cooks, thus infusing the soup with a wonderful richness. I’ve found two online merchants that sell jars of papas criollas, which will do in a pinch (see the Resources below).
Guascas (Galinsoga parviflora) grows in areas with a reasonably moist warm season. In North America it is known as the weed Gallant Soldier, and apparently it’s pretty invasive so I don’t plan to grow any in my garden; however, if you know how to identify it you may find a treasure trove locally. Just be careful that it hasn’t been sprayed with any toxic weed killers; otherwise, check out the online sources mentioned below.
The corn on the cob, or mazorca, used in Colombia is different from the typical sweet corn you find in the U.S. The kernels are larger and a bit tougher, which means that you have to cook them almost from the beginning to tenderize them. Since sweet corn is already tender, you simply add it during the last 30 minutes of cooking.
The garnishes are all available at many local grocery stores, although you’ll want to be sure to use Crema Mexicana rather than regular heavy cream. It’s a combination of sour cream and heavy cream, and the dollops sit very nicely on top of the soup. You can also make your own Crema Mexicana, but plan ahead as it takes about 24 hours before it’s ready.
I have made my best attempt to approximate the wonderfully rich soup that I remember from Bogotá, but I would certainly love to find some fresh, not canned, papas criollas. If you know where I can get some fresh papas criollas in the U.S., please share the information in the Comments. That would make my year!
The soup tastes best when it has cooked for at least 4 hours, so start peeling those potatoes early and allow plenty of time to simmer. You can freeze this in 32-ounce containers.
[Updated February 4, 2010.]
- 3 pounds (~1.3 kilos) chicken breast, on the bone with skin (or 1 whole chicken, cut into parts)
- 6 quarts (~6 liters) water
- 3 pounds (~1.3 kilos) russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
- 6 pounds (~2.7 kilos) new red potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
- 3 pounds (~1.3 kilos) papas criollas (in the U.S. use Dutch Creamer, Baby Dutch Yellow, Yukon Gold, or Yellow Finn potatoes), cut into 1-inch chunks
- 4 ears corn on the cob (fresh or frozen), cut into 3-inch pieces
- 2 handfuls of quascas (about 5 g dried or 10 g fresh)
- SERVE WITH
- cilantro leaves
- Crema Mexicana (or regular heavy cream if you can't find the other)
- avocados, sliced
- cooked rice
- Place the chicken breasts in the bottom of a large stock pot, sprinkle with a handful of guascas, and add water. Bring to a boil and cook until the meat is tender. Remove chicken and set aside. Cover with foil and keep warm.
- Add the potatoes and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for at least a couple hours, 4 hours is best. The yellow potatoes should start to break up in the soup, but if not, you can help the soup along by mashing some of the yellow potatoes in the pot.
- Once the cooked chicken is cool enough to handle, remove the skin and bones. Cut the meat into small pieces and drop them back into the pot.
- About 5 minutes before serving, add the remaining guascas and let it cook for 5 minutes, then serve.
- Serve in deep bowls, making sure that each bowl gets some chicken and a piece of corn on the cob. Garnish with a dollop of heavy cream, capers, and cilantro leaves. You can eat the avocado on the side with the rice, or you can cut a slice into pieces and drop into your soup bowl. (I like the avocado chunks in my soup.)
12 to 16 quart stock pot
I’ve been to a few restaurants in Colombia that served the ajiaco with a quarter of a roasted chicken on the side in addition to the regular sides.