Spicy Colombian aji is the hot sauce of my dreams: vinegary, acidic, spicy in just the right amount, vegetable-forward and endlessly customizable. And of course, its beautiful green colour doesn't hurt, either! Discover the best hot sauce you didn't know you were missing, brought to you straight from my Colombia travels.
"Oh my god, it burns," my man gasped in between puffed, red cheeks, fanning his face as he reached for the handy glass of ice-cold cider.
I stared at him, dumbfounded.
"It's barely spicy... I'm sorry, it was just a bit of hot sauce..." I trailed off, watching him drown back a quarter of a litre of cider in less than 30 seconds.
This was my first time cooking for him, and judging by his reaction to one taste of my conservatively spiced Middle Eastern curry, I wasn't sure there was going to be many more.
There is this idea that Latin food is spicy. Well, as many who have travelled across South America can attest, I'm here to tell you nothing could be further from the truth. Hot peppers make an appearance in Mexico, staying strong throughout central American, and making tentacles into Peru.... but lose their stride as the continent moves towards Argentina.
On our first date, when I offered the Colombian man sitting by me a taste of my shrimp tacos, he took one look at the bottle of hot sauce I doused on the plate not five minutes earlier, and politely declined.
"I can't eat spicy. It hurts when it comes in, and it hurts when it comes out."
My god, I thought - any man who makes that kind of conversation on a first date must be a keeper.
Luckily, we overcame that minor hurdle. He learned to temper spicy dishes with generous portions of sour cream, and I learned to keep the spice to my own plate. When I cook for us, I now treat chilli flakes as spicy - and that's coming from a girl who used to put fresh habanero peppers in salads. My tolerance has gone down, and his has gone (very slightly) up. I had resigned myself to a life devoid of spice... which for me, was almost a life devoid of flavour.
That is, until I discovered spicy Colombian aji.
It came about on Christmas, when we prepared a traditional Colombian Christmas dinner for our friends. My searches for Colombian pico de gallo uncovered a recipe that when presented to an actual Colombian, was easily identified as spicy Colombian aji. It was a hotter, much more nuanced salsa, one that could be counted on to give food extra layers of flavour even if used in combination with another sauce. And what's even better, it was a hot sauce my man could stomach!
From the moment I made it, I was hooked.
We now have a constantly replenished jar of spicy Colombian aji in our pantry. As soon as we start to run low, I go to the market and get whatever peppers look good - long green banana peppers produce a milder aji, while jalapeno gives spicy Colombian aji more of a kick. If I have tomatoes on hand, I will throw one into the blend - and the same goes for some red peppers. Essentially, it's an endlessly customizable dish that lets me play, taste and enjoy it anew every time.
My recipe for spicy Colombian aji is basic, but I encourage you to find your own combination - or to do as the Colombians do, and try a different pepper combination each time. Either way, spicy Colombian aji will soon become the best hot sauce you didn't know you were missing!
Spicy Colombian aji
- 1 hot pepper finely minced (you can use any hot pepper of your choice - green banana peppers are mild, jalapenos are a bit spicier, or you can use a mix of green and red peppers)
- ½ cup white vinegar
- ¼ cup water
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon lime juice
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- ½ cup fresh cilantro finely minced
- ½ cup scallions finely minced
- ½ to mato optional, finely minced
- Combine all finely minced ingredients in a jar, and ensure you have enough liquid to cover (if your liquid isn't enough, add a 1:2:4 ratio of oil-water-vinegar). Let sit in dark, cool area for at least 24 hours, and then refrigerate.