Citizens, there are few things the Suzerain of Spice – YOUR TFD! – enjoys more than a well-made proper salsa, and this recipe for Llajua is quite possibly the ORIGINAL recipe for it, given that tomatoes and hot peppers are natives of Bolivia and grow wild there! I am very excited to share the proper recipe and technique to make this fiery Bolivian condiment!
Bolivia’s version of all-around, use-it-on-everything hot sauce that must be on the table with every meal, is indeed llajua (pronounced YA-hoo-ah, which means ‘hot sauce’ in the Quechua language (Western Bolivia).
Llajua is a chili sauce prepared from locotos (Capsicum pubescens) hot chili peppers, and tomatoes; sometimes onions are added to the mix.
One or two seasoning herbs could be added, depending on the region and taste: quirquiña (Bolivian coriander) in Cochabamba and wakataya (Peruvian black mint) in the Altiplano and other valleys of Bolivia.
Quirquiña has been dubbed Bolivian cilantro/coriander. However, unlike cilantro, quirquiña does not make your mouth taste like soap, a sad genetic quirk shared by many people.
To replicate the complex, spicy flavor of quirquiña, people often substitute cilantro, ideally with some floral basil and/or spicy arugula.
Llajua is preferably prepared on a grinding stone called a batan, which can be found in most Bolivian households of Cochabamba and Altiplano. In the absence of a batan, it should be made in a mortar and pestle: while it can be prepared in a blender, you really shouldn’t, as it will foam up and the texture will be wrong.
It is consumed all over Bolivia. As noted on boliviabella.com:
Llajua is generally served in a small bowl with a serving spoon. This is important because llajua must always be politely scooped onto one’s plate or into one’s soup. It is not acceptable to “dunk” one’s food into the bowl of llajua, which will be shared by all who are at the table. Bolivia’s don’t typically eat off of each other’s plates, drink from another person’s glass, dunk things into the same sauce, or in any other way share spittle.
Llajua is used to season a wide variety of dishes. A traditional use is as a dip for plain cooked potatoes or bread, or an addition to soup prior to the main course. Food carts usually have it available for customers and for take-away food it is dispensed in small hand-tied clear plastic bags.
In the north of Chile (Arica and Iquique) the same sauce receives the name pebre, which in the rest of Chile refers to a completely different dressing.
The name “Llajua”, despite being the traditional name for this recipe, was accorded trademark protection in 2008 by the Bolivian government.
As further expounded on cuzcoeats.com:
Llajwa is a combination of a locoto (Peruvian:rocoto) a pepper the botanists label capsicum pubescens, that is usually very hot and has black seeds. This pepper is native to the upper jungle areas very near the highlands and many houses in lower areas of the highlands or near lack titicaca have towering locoto bushes growing in their patio from which they harvest the peppers they need. Others buy them in the markets.
Besides being hot, a locoto has a piney taste that gives great flavor to the resulting dish. People will discuss which are the best locotos, which vendor has them or where the best come from. They do vary substantially and, outside of the commercial farms in Arequipa, Peru, and to a lesser extent in Cusco, are not standardized. The cook’s choice of a good locoto is the first step in making a fantastic llajwa.
The next step is finding good tomatoes. This is not easy, because tomatoes do not grow in the highlands or even very close by. They grow in warmer valleys and must be trucked in, yet chilled tomatoes do not ripen well. As a result you want to find very flavorful tomatoes that are not filled with water but are packed with flavor, since they are key to this dish.
Though the tomato is indigenous to Bolivia and Peru, in fact wild ones grow all around, still it was domesticated in Meso America and only sometime after the conquest returned to the Andes.
These two ingredients are basic. Now you have to make a choice, how peppery or how tomatoey do you want the sauce. Finding that balance is tricky, especially since these two ingredients do not come in standard sizes.
Finally, though many people do not add it, you can choose to add an herb. The classic herb is quirquiña, also called quillquiña, or some variant. It is closely related to the Mexican herb pápalo, though its leaves are small and the pápalos are large, hence its name which refers to a butterfly. In either case these are quite pungent herbs and a little goes a long way.
The classic way to make a llajwa is to slice and seed the locoto, slice the tomatoes and then grind them finely by hand on a flat surfaced batán or on a different grinding surface. This makes the best sauce by far, because of the textures.
People talk about how different persons have different abilities in making the llajwa perfect. Many people today use a blender, though it produces a product that is suboptimal. Convenience often wins out and younger people forget the textures and quality of older styles of preparation. In any case, if using a blender—or better a food processor, be sure to blend in pulses to not end up with a foamy sauce.
The final ingredient is to find salt. Classically, in the Andes, salt comes from saleras, traditional areas of salt production such as Uyuni in Bolivia or Maras in Peru. You might wish to try different sea salts if you cannot obtain one of these.
Citizens, llajua is not at all difficult to make, but the proper technique MUST be followed or you’ll get a foamy, watery mess. That means skip the food processor and make it with a mortar and pestle, please! As to the ingredients, the tomatoes must be heirloom and a very dark red, as dark as possible – this guarantees the proper flavor. De-seeding them is also a must.
Now, as to the peppers – the proper pepper to be used here is of course the rocoto / manzano with its black seeds. They are exceedingly hard to find in this country, so you’ll want to grow your own – seeds may be purchased here. You could also cheat and use a sauce made from them, which can be purchased here. Failing that, the final resort is a full-on substitution of serrano peppers, which have the right heat level but a totally different flavor.
For the quirquiña, that too is very hard to find in the U.S., though some Latin American grocers do carry it fresh – you can buy fresh, live quirquiña here. The use of huacatay or black mint is an addition only some Bolivians near Peru use, but I dearly love it and include the ingredient as an optional choice. You can buy jarred huacatay paste here or grow your own from seeds you purchase here.
Battle on – the Generalissimo
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