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Cooking Ajiaco in Bogota, Colombia Part 2

A brown-skinned woman in a kitchen wearing an apron and a hairnet, separating green herbs.

One of my favourite things to do when travelling is to visit local food markets. With one day in Bogota, Colombia, I visited the Plaza de Paloquemao, took a cooking class and ate a whole lot of food.

A chef in a white shirt, black apron and black cap give instructions to a male and female student wearing tan aprons, standing at a counter with cutting boards and knives.

This is the second part of my 1 day food adventure in Bogota, Colombia. We started the food tour with a guided visit to the Plaza de Paloquemao, one of Colombia’s oldest and largest traditonal markets, to taste some local foods and buy fresh ingredients for our Ajiaco, then it was off to the cooking school to prepare a meal.

The cooking lesson

It was late in December and not a busy time of the year for this food tour so there was just 2 of us in the class. The cooking school was small with a dining area and a compact kitchen perfect for a small group. The chef spoke just a few words of English and my Spanish is very limited, but it wasn’t hard to figure out that he ran a strict kitchen. Before we even stepped into the kitchen he had us put on a hair net, apron and throughly wash our hands.

Chef was very serious and a bit intimidating as he doled out instructions in short sentences, allowing time for the translator to retell it all in English. For the first half of the class he didn’t smile and only spoke to give instructions, but then he challenged us to peel a potato with a knife in one go without breaking the peel. Neither of us could do it which Chef found very amusing.

A brown skinned woman in a purple shirt, hair net and an apron in a kitchen peeling a potato with a knife.

On the menu

  • Ajiaco. It’s a traditional, hearty soup with chicken, corn, and 3 kinds of potatoes (papas criollas or yellow potatoes, papas sabanera or red bliss potatoes and pastusas or russet potatoes), with origins in Bogota. According to Chef, it is most often served with white rice, avocado, capers and cream. He was very adamant that unless I could find guascas, a local herb, I would not be able to accurately recreate ajiaco at home.
  • Colombian-style white rice, cooked with garlic and spring onions for added flavour.
  • A simple dessert of queso fresco (soft cheese) and panela (unrefined sugar typically found in blocks).

We handled one ingredient at a time with chef explaining each, why it was used, and how it should be prepped. If cooking isn’t your thing then a couple of hours of peeling and chopping probably sounds like a chore but I loved it! The tastes, smells and techniques…it was the perfect way to spend an afternoon in Bogota.

How to make Ajiaco

After one lesson I’m not an expert in making this soup but I’m definitely going to try again. This is the recipe we used.

Ingredients

  • 1 chicken breast
  • 2 pounds papa sabanera (red bliss potatoes)
  • 1 pound potatoes pastusa (russet potatoes)
  • 2 pounds papa criolla (yellow potato creole)
  • ½ pound parsnips
  • 1 small bundle of guascas
  • ½ pound green peas
  • 1 small bundle of cilantro
  • 1 corn cob, cut into 4 pieces
  • 3 spring onions
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 avocado
  • 1 small jar capers
  • cream
  • Salt
  • Colombian-style white rice
  • 1 stick of celery

Directions

  1. Bundle one spring onion, cilantro, celery and tie it with cooking string. Place the bundle in large pot with water along with the chicken, corn and salt.
  2. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for about 30 minutes.
  3. While the chicken is cooking, peel and cut all of the potatoes into small pieces. Set aside.
  4. After 30 minutes, remove the chicken and set aside to cool.
  5. Place the red bliss and russet potatoes in the same pot you cooked the chicken. The water should not cover the potatoes, if required remove some water from the pot. Cook potatoes for 30 minutes.
  6. After 30 minutes, remove the spring onion, cilantro and celery from the pot.
  7. Add the green peas and yellow potatoes into the pot, cover and continue cooking for 20 more minutes.
  8. While the peas and potatoes are cooking, chop one spring onion and one garlic glove.
  9. Shred the chicken.
  10. Heat 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a 2 quart saucepan on medium heat and place the onions, garlic and salt. Stir for 2 to 3 minutes, until the garlic and onions turns clear and barely golden in colour.
  11. Add the onion and garlic mixture to the pot with potatoes and continue cooking.
  12. After the 20 minutes add the guascas and shredded chicken.
  13. Serve the Ajiaco hot with capers, table cream, white rice and avocado on the side.

Verdict: The ajiaco was delicious and hearty. The addition of capers added a nice saltiness, but for my taste the cream didn’t add much and since Chef said it wasn’t an essential component of the dish I would eliminate it next time. The ajiaco took a fair bit of time to make and wasn’t a fancy meal but I think it would be a good make-ahead dish that can be reheated for a quick meal. The dessert of queso fresco and panela was quite sweet and rich, and probably not a dessert I would make again.

Things I learned while cooking in Colombia:

  • I can’t peel an entire potato (with a knife – no fancy peeler here) in one go without breaking the peel
  • There are subtle but distinct differences in flavour & texture of different potato varieties
  • A hair net is seriously itchy
  • You do not need to speak the same language to be able communicate and create delicious food.

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