Latin American Cuisine: Ají (Colombian-style Salsa)

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

To say that this is the ají recipe would be ludicrous. Like Mexican salsas, there are countless variations of this Colombian sauce: some made with hot chilies, some with avocados, some with pumpkin seeds, even some made with hard boiled eggs. But, as with Mexican salsa, there is one that immediately comes to most people's minds when they hear the word. In this case, it's the tomato and onion-based version I first tried at my aunt-in-law's house just outside of Bogotá.

Made by combining diced tomatoes, cilantro, green onions, and (if you'd like), a chili or two, it starts off like a Mexican pico de gallo. Where it differs is in its seasoning, which is nothing more than salt and water. You'd think that adding water to your vegetables would make them taste, well, watery, but rather, what you get is an intensely flavored liquid as the salt extracts juices from the vegetables. The ají is thin, letting it soak into the crevices of grilled meat, or get sopped up into the pores of crisp corn empanadas.

You'll see it as a universal condiment for just about everything. Roadside grilled meat vendors put out bowls of it to go with your chorizo or your ternera a la llanera—the insanely tender veal legs slow-grilled on vertical spits over open fires. My wife likes to spoon it over her fried papas criollas, the creamy little yellow potatoes native to the region, or even better, her fried yuca. It's an essential condiment for crispy corn-dough empanadas (there are empanada bars in Bogotá that offer dozens of varieties). I like bite off the tip and spoon some ají directly into the filling. You'll even see folks adding it to their soup for a quick boost of salt and flavor.

Delicious and ridiculously easy? That's the best kind of recipe of all.