September 2012

Aji for the body and spicy for the soul


By: Walter Sánchez Canedo
Instituto de Investigaciones

Having sliced locoto
Photo: Walter Sánchez

The aji (uchú in Quechua) is a spice that for the indigenous societies had a ritual characteristic due to its capacity to stimulate the body functions by the intenseness – even producing transpiration-. For this characteristic the aji was associated by the Colonial Church and the Hispanic culinary system to the fire, heat, burning, and excitement – hence to sensuality, lust, temptation. In other words a condiment classified as “hot” that exalted all the senses of the body, leading human beings to the flesh temptation and thus to the burning fire of hell and evil. (saxra in aymara; supay in quechua), alienating them from profound experiences for the soul and of God.

Cochabamba, for its agricultural production and for its people’s idiosyncrasy, soon will become the capital of spicy foods. Its trend will be so big that, not only will diversify the dishes made with aji; but also the feasting will be linked to an own narrative...

Not known its arrival by the Spaniards, they soon confirm that this condiment was used by the indigenous almost in every meal. The Jesuit Acosta (1590: 237) is accurate in his affirmation in his book “Historia Natural y Moral de las Indias”: “the aji is the most common spice for sauce and stews”. The Hispanic culinary system categorized meals in “fresh”, “warm” and “hot”, dishes with aji were placed in the “hot” category. However, among the ajis, it is recognized to have different levels of hotness and therefore some healthier than others. The very “hot” ones were considerate to be dangerous: “there is a fierce one, called Caribe, it stings and bites stoutly, another one mild and a bit sweet, that can be bitten by pieces. A small one that smells like musk in your mouth, it is pretty good…. eat it green, dry, ground, whole, in a pot or in stews. It is the main sauce used in the Picanterías. To cool down the aji, indigenous use salt or fresh tomatoes, making a tasty salsa that is delicious with meals”.

Considered as “hot food”, the church had reservations towards people consuming it due to the allegedly embarrassing and “diabolic” effects. For example, “when eaten in moderation it helps the stomach to a better digestion; but eating excessively, the effects can be the opposite. The limitless use of ají in young men is harmful for their health; primarily for the soul, because it leads to sensuality”. In other words, not only the ingestion of aji was a concern, but the deposition as well: “and as amusing as it seems, this experience being so notorious of the heat it provokes, that the same feeling that comes in, comes out, it burns like fire”. Despite the efforts of the colonial church to modify these culinary conducts of the indigenous and mestizos, the power of the “aji” even passes to flavour the Spaniards food. Even more, quickly it forms a great category that involves all the dishes that use “aji”: the spiciness which consumption becomes massive in the main cities, -even among people from the elite- and will stay, besides, associated to the chicha. It is not casual then, that by the nineteenth century the most popular goods at the restaurants would be a variety of dishes with “aji” (tongue, chicken, beans, etc.) and the food stands, where these dishes are sold, are called “picanterías”.

Photo: Walter Sánchez

Ciro Bayo, a Spanish resident who lives a few years in Sucre during the second half of the nineteenth century, tells us in his book “Chuquisaca o La Plata Perulera” that the delight for spicy food was inserted in all social classes of this city: “the “chichi” is necessary to nourish the sacred fire of the family gatherings..(And) above all to calm down the fever of the spiciness that with so much pleasure the masses savour. Emphasizing the fondness of the criollos towards spicy food could have been inherited by the Spaniards, most of all from the natives of Extremadura, who might not have known about the “aji”, but did enjoy other spices known in other zones of the world. The ones who savoured the most spicy food belonged to the “cholo” sector, who even opened their “picanterías”: “The “picanterías” are common stalls, a type of Bolivian tavern, where famous spicy dishes are sold: stew with aji, locoto or other hot peppers that made anyone cry, especially if not used to such spicy tasty dishes. They are “hot” dishes, very hot, made with beef, chicken, partridge and potato. It is from these dishes the saying to drink much chicha to alleviate all that steam. Also known as “chinganas” were considered “food stands of the white horse, people would get together to eat and drink most of all, especially the cheap carousers of the city, presided over Saint Monday. As in Madrid it is a custom to exhibit outside some tavern doors pots with a typical dish of the place called “piri”, this way the Bolivian “picanterías” share a peek of the spicy dishes offered made a scarlet of spices; and still the “Cholas” go out in the streets carrying these pots in a huge basket placed over their heads.”

In the city of La Paz in 1880, the “Guide of the Traveller in La Paz” of Nicolas Acosta, highlights the great amount of “Picanterías” – There are many, but the famous ones are: --one located on the square of San Pedro and another two blocks passed the Prado. The city has more than 200 indigenous cooking foods to be sold on every block possible. – They are like street food stands that offer positive services to the working people. It would be good if the Municipality had appropriate booths built for these people.”

Cochabamba, for its agricultural production and for its people’s idiosyncrasy, soon will become the capital of spicy foods. Its trend will be so big that, not only will diversify the dishes made with aji; but also the feasting will be linked to an own narrative connected to and order in time for its eating and even a calendar that regulates the daily life of the people nowadays. For example, death is associated with spiciness. Indeed, when a person dies, mostly in the countryside, the family offers a dish with spicy aji (a qurpacho or a jarwiuchu). The same way, the foods related to the festivities to the dead like “Todos Santos”, “Difuntos” and even Carnival, the spicy dishes cannot be absent (the uchucu or puchero). During the day, the spicy food is eaten mainly before noon and mid-afternoon (spicy tongue, or chicken, salteña, etc.). It is in this last calendar of food where the bond is explicit between spicy food and evil, introduced during the colony. The spicy food with aji is usually eaten during two different moments of the day, called “saxra-hora” or the devil time: from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. This is the reason for the name “saxra-comidas” or devil food. Opposed to these spicy aji dishes are three other spicy dishes eaten during the “Christian” schedule, and come with a side dish. It’s a sauce made with “locoto” and tomato, called “llajua” and match the time of breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Fricase Stew
Photo: Walter Sánchez

This way, spicy food, “picanterías” and “chicherias” have belonged to a fundamental part of the culture of Cochabamba and will remain permanently keeping all its “diabolical” characteristics.


Instituto de

Translated by
Lisa Lazaneo

Calendario SEPTIEMBRE 2012

> Ciclo de cine “Pinceles y lápices: sueños y pesadillas”

“Artemisia” (Directora Agnès Merlet)
Lunes 3

“Van Gogh” (Director Jacques Dutronc)
Martes 4

“Toulouse Lautrec” (Director Roger Planchon)
Miércoles 5

Subtítulos en castellano
Auditorio Christian Valbert
(calle La Paz Nº 784 casi Crisóstomo Carrillo)
Ingreso libre

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