Latino Man's list of priorities upon arriving back in Bogotá were as follows:
- Extended family
The third item on the list is a Colombian soup, native to the Cundiboyacense region and unlike anything else I've tasted or in fact, seen served. It has a potato base which is familiar enough but contains a herb called "guascas". This herb, which gives the soup its distinctive flavour, has not travelled far from its South American home and hence was a brand new taste for me. The soup also comes with corn left on the cob (an interesting challenge to eat) and finally it is is served with side dishes of avacado, cream and capers - another combination I had never encountered until my first Ajiaco.
That first Ajiaco was heated in its vacuum pack, which had been carried from Colombia to Singapore in a friend's suitcase. The second, from my own kitchen, was something approximating the real thing but the real thing, the real Ajiaco eaten in a Bogotá restaurant on Day 2 of our Colombian trip was truly incredible. It's potato and cream smoothness is spiked with tangy and salty capers, and the occasional crunchy sweet bite of corn. It's the most classically Colombian combination of ingredients - potato, corn, meat and avocado - and yet it has a taste and texture that is totally unique.
So, this week, I tried once again to replicate the experience of Ajiaco. I have a healthy supply of guascas in my cupboard so the challenge lies in the potatoes. Ajiaco calls for three different kinds of potatoes, none of which I can buy here in Singapore. So I make it up, trying to find three varying kinds of potatoes including some small and waxy as well as some big and easily churned. The result is never quite right, but close enough for someone so far from home.
The base recipe is from the El Tiempo series of books on Colombian regional cooking however I have adapted it not just to what I can find but also what I can afford in Singapore. The original recipe suggests cooking an entire chicken to first make the stock, then shred for the soup. Meat is really expensive in Singapore which makes free-range, organic or pastured meat outrageously expensive. I don't dare waste an entire chicken of this kind on a soup, so I either use the left-overs of a roast chicken, or buy chicken breasts instead.
The remains of a roast chicken or 2 chicken breasts
2 litres of cold water
Salt to taste
2 cloves of garlic
4 sprigs of spring onion - 2 chopped and 2 whole
1 handful of guascas (there's really no substitute for this herb. If you can't find it, you can't make this soup)
4 sprigs of coriander - 2 chopped and 2 whole
4 cobs of corn
16 varied potatoes including at least 4 of a small and waxy variety
1/2 cup of cream
1/2 cup of capers
1 big avocado, peeled and cut into cubes
If you're using left-over roast chicken, remove and shred any chicken meat and set aside. Put the bones, or the chicken breasts along with the salt, garlic, whole spring onion, whole coriander, half the guascas and the 2 litres of cold water in a big pot with a lid. Bring it to the boil and occasionally spoon out the foam that appears on the surface of the water. When the chicken is cooked (or after 15 minutes if using bones), drain and remove all of the solids and herbs and return the stock to the pot.
Peel and wash the potatoes and cut into thick slices. Cut the corn cobs into 4 chunks and add to the stock along with the potatoes, chopped coriander and spring onions. Add a little salt and pepper if needed. Bring the stock back to the boil and cook for 25 minutes until the potatoes are soft. Remove the corn and set aside for a few minutes.
Before serving, use a potato masher or a handheld electric beater to blend the potatoes just a little (you want a little bit of bite in the final soup), add the remaining guascas and stir through.
Divide the shredded chicken between 4 bowls and cover with the hot soup. Skewer the corn on some long bamboo to make them easier to eat and place them on top of the soup bowls. Serve with sides of cream, capers and avacado.