Recipe: Huancaína sauce

This is the side dish/appetizer I made for the international dinner we had last Saturday. Huancaína is, without a doubt, the most popular sauce in Peru. It literally means “from Huancayo” (a city in the highlands) but its origin is not clear. The most convincing story I’ve heard is that it was prepared by someone who was on the train that goes to Huancayo. It doesn’t matter, it’s delicious anyway.

The main ingredients in huancaína sauce are queso fresco (fresh cow’s milk cheese) and yellow chilli. In Sydney I’ve bought rounds of queso fresco in Tierras Latinas and Flemington Paddy’s Market. When I don’t feel like travelling more than one hour on a train (which is 99.9% of the time) I use haloumi or Australian feta instead. I suppose a mix of any of those and ricotta could work well, too.

Regarding the yellow chilli, I strongly suggest getting Peruvian chilli (available jarred or powdered in Tierras Latinas, and jarred in Fiji Market in Newtown). I always use the powdered one (for heat and taste) plus fresh medium or large chillies (for texture).

As with pesto, the original recipe was developed when no blenders or food processors were around. People used a batán, a stone instrument that has the same purpose of a mortar and pestle, obtaining a chunky sauce. To achieve that result, instead of blending or processing the cheese with the rest of ingredients, crumb it with a fork or grate it with finely and mix with the rest by hand.

This sauce was originally invented as part of a dish: papa a la huancaína, thick slices of boiled potatoes dressed with the sauce and topped with a slice of hard-boiled egg and an olive. It’s an extremely popular entrée, found everywhere from the humblest home in the highlands to the fanciest restaurant in the capital city. But serving that great sauce only with boiled potatoes would be underestimating its potential. It can be used as dipping sauce for potato chips, cocktail potatoes in toothpicks, cassava chips, crudités, tequeños (queso fresco wrapped in wonton sheets and deep-fried), crackers, etc.; as well as a sauce for pasta, gnocchi, risotti, etc.

Last week I served it as a dipping sauce for yuquitas fritas, cassava chips made by boiling cassava with salt until tender, cutting it in thick chips, and frying them in butter. You can buy frozen cassava in supermarkets (I buy it in Foodworks or Fiji Market).

Huancaína sauce

Huancaina sauce & yuquitas fritas

1 large or 2 medium chillies (preferably yellow), plus 1 tablespoon powdered Peruvian yellow chilli, or 3 – 4 jarred Peruvian yellow chillies or whatever chillies you want *
1 small red onion
2 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil
1/2 – 2/3 cup evaporated milk
4 – 6 soda crackers
200 gr queso fresco, haloumi or Australian feta

Coarsely chop the chillies and onion. Smash the garlic with the blade of your knife. Heat the oil over low heat, add chillies (including the powdered), onion, and garlic and cook for at least 10 minutes.

Transfer the contents of the pan to a blender or food processor, add milk, soda crackers and cheese. Blend until smooth. Alternatively, don’t process the cheese, but crumble it with a fork or grate it finely and add to the rest of the ingredients by hand.

Adjust the seasoning (if using Australian feta you won’t need any salt), if you find the sauce it’s too salty add a bit of milk accordingly. If the sauce ends up being too thin, add more soda crackers.

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