If there is one lesson every traveler learns it is that traveling is a process of constant re -- adaptation. On the other hand, one of the more intriguing lessons for travelers is that despite the familiarity of the ingredients in a simple soup dish, the taste can be both exotically foreign and familiar. And so it is with ajiaco, a chicken soup "that will give any Jewish mother a run for her money."
That quote comes from Susan Eastman who, with her travel agent husband, Robert, recently shared with me the delightful result of their meticulously researched recipe for one of the most famous dishes in Columbia, pronounced ah -- he -- ah' -- koh.
"It was in Bogota, many years ago at the Casa de Simon Bolivar, that we first had the dish," Eastman recalls with nostalgia. "It's a funny story, and one that parallels the oldest documented record of the soup."
It was a cold and rainy day when Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada, the Spanish explorer, arrived with a terrible cold at the South American plateau he soon dubbed Bogota. By chance, he came upon a group of Chibcha Indians cooking an aromatic concoction that included ingredients he had come to regard as common. He sampled the dish, and was surprised when his cold instantly disappeared. He had his cook obtain the recipe and, it is said, enjoyed a steaming bowl of ajiaco every day for the duration of his "stay."
"The day Susan and I arrived in Bogota I was coming down with a cold, too," Eastman recalls. "The waiter -- there are no waitresses in Latin America -- suggested ajiaco. It saved me, and I decided that there are Jewish mothers everywhere, even if they aren't Jewish!"
Four hundred years ago ajiaco was a simple combination of the best things that grew in the region of Bogota: three to six of the 17 varieties of potatoes the Chibcha called "fruit," plus onions, corn and other indigenous herbs, and a little salt that had been acquired from trading with the lowlanders. Through the centuries the dish has become sophisticated, and today it is a gourmet meal -- in -- itself that includes the ancient ingredients along with freshly ground pepper, chicken backs (breasts optional), garlic, capers, avocado and other surprises. It is the unusual combination of ordinary ingredients that renders the soup unique.
According to the Eastmans, who are frequent visitors to Columbia, ajiaco is the most popular meal in Bogota, and one of the most popular in the country. That is, having sampled the dish, hardly surprising; it is a perfect cold weather soup. Ajiaco is still served with a hot, crusty bread, and in the traditional black bowls in wicker baskets that go back beyond de Quesada's time. The reason for the baskets is to prevent the diner's finger from being burned; the bowls are heated in the oven before the soup is added, which extends the soup's soothing heat. It is a tradition that is delightful--but not really necessary. AJIACO (6 servings) 3 to 4 different kinds of potatoes (one idaho, long island, a few little reds, or whatever -- it's Chibcha freeform) 4 ears corn 4 chicken backs (both sections) or 4 breasts 4 medium onions, chopped 1 bunch parsley, chopped 4 cubes chicken bouillon 2 carrots, chopped 3 sticks celery, chopped 1 green pepper, chopped 2 teaspoons oregano 1/2 teaspoon coriander Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 1 clove garlic 2 tablespoons capers 1 avocado, sliced 6 dollops sour cream (optional)
Wash and crudely chop the potatoes. Cut ears of corn into 3 sections each and reserve. Remove the skin from the chicken backs (if so inclined). Place all the ingredients--with the exceptions of the reserved corn, garlic, capers, avocado and sour cream -- in a large kettle. Add enough water to cover the ingredients. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for just over 1 hour.
Remove the chicken backs (or breasts) and debone. I prefer the backs because it's probably more authentic, and white meat tends to be a bit dry after that much cooking. Return the meat to the pot. Add the corn and continue simmering.
Place 1/3 to 1/2 of the potatoes (start with the lesser amount) and a couple ladles full of the liquid in a blender or food processor. Add the clove of garlic and pure'e. This is the thickener (more potatoes mean thicker soup). Return it to the kettle, stir, and simmer for an additional 20 minutes.
Place in individual soup bowls (with a section of corn) and garnish each with a teaspoon of capers, 3 slices of avocado, and a dollop of sour cream, if desired. Serve with a hot, crusty bread