Spice Hunting: Aji Panca


When you start really getting into chiles, you break them down into groups. There are the everyday chiles. The strange chiles, shoved to the back of the pantry, you bought that one time to make a foreign dish that you enjoyed but have yet to revisit. The chiles to strike fear in the hearts of your enemies. And then there are the chiles so fascinating, so strangely complex, that you can't stop buying them.

Aji panca is hot but not fiery. It's got just a touch of smoke, and it's sweet—so much so that, on my palette at least, it tastes like blueberries. We forget it at times, but chiles are fruits. Aji panca makes that botanical relationship abundantly clear, and for cooks who like to experiment with their chiles, it's a great addition to the pantry. If you need a substitute, chocolatey pasillas can step in, but it's worth seeking out the real thing.

Aji panca is a member of the baccatum family of chiles. They're fruity, sweet, and surprisingly complex compared to their better-known cousins like poblanos, jalapeños, and serranos. Aji panca is a close relative of aji amarillo, but with a brighter, fresher flavor that doesn't taste cooked even after drying or cooking down to a paste. Its roots are in Peruvian cooking, where it's steeped in stews, ground into sauces, and rubbed into meat before grilling or roasting.

How to Use Aji Panca

Aji panca tastes so berry-like it can be used like citrus zest, ground and tossed with foods just before serving. Its sweet heat plays well with other fruity flavors, and it gives added dimension to citrus and stone fruit. When whisked with lime juice it's the perfect dressing for some cubed avocado. Put that on toast and you have one of my favorite breakfasts.

The chile's lightness goes nicely with something rich and creamy to balance it out. Beyond avocado, I love it with chocolate, especially one with a robust, fruity character of its own. After grinding, it can be stirred into chocolate dessert sauces or little chocolate pots de crème. Or bake it into cookies that pack a mean little bite.

Aji panca's balanced flavor really comes into its own when cooked for longer periods of time. Though its fresh berry notes lose their distinctiveness, its subtle smoky quality comes to the fore. Like chipotle, but less overpowering, aji panca dances across neutral canvases of chicken and lean pork. When processed to a paste with garlic, salt, and olive oil, it's the perfect rub for a quick kebab or roast.

Where to Find Aji Panca

Unless your grocery's chile section is very well stocked, you'll have to seek refuge in a market that caters to Peruvian cooks. Aji panca will be next to the far more well-known aji amarillo, likely both in dried forms and processed to a paste ($3 for 7 ounces). I prefer whole dried chiles for applications involving little to no cooking, but the paste certainly does the job, especially as a rub for meat. New Yorkers can pick up dried pods at Kalustyan's ($6 for 2 ounces). Otherwise, a pound of them will set you back all of ten dollars at Amazon. Trust me, you'll go through them faster than you think. This is a front of the shelf chile, for sure.