Despite widespread misinformation (e.g.: Wikipedia) Papas a la Huancaína means "Potatoes of the Lady from Huancayo."

Despite widespread misinformation (e.g.: Wikipedia) Papas a la Huancaína means “Potatoes of the Lady from Huancayo.”

For those who have already traveled to Perú, no doubt they’ve had or at least seen this popular Peruvian classic dish consisting of cold potatoes served with a cheese sauce. Made from only a few ingredients the entire dish can be made in the time it takes to boil a few potatoes (papas). But the dish isn’t popular just because it is easy to make, the cheese sauce is rich and delicately balanced and when served with potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, lettuce and  black (Kalamata) olives the flavor combination cross the spectrum from  cheesy, spicy, salty, bitter, starchy and bland.

Papas a la Huancaína is quintessentially Peruvian and undoubtedly Andean. Made with the spicy and flavorful Aji Amarillo, Perú’s most popular cooking pepper (seemingly found in nearly every dish!), it is good when served over nearly all of the hundreds of varieties of potatoes I’ve tried, not just papas blancas or papas amarillas (white or yellow potatoes). This region, the Mantaro Valley, has 3,000 varieties of  potatoes. The cheese sauce is commonly found on Peruvian tables as an excellent accompaniment to many other dishes (like pasta). Extranjeros (foreigners) like me tend to go overboard and use the sauce on everything. A recent French visitor friend of mine loved to spread it on French bread, I love it on top of most things Peruvian and many things not like: chili beans, tacos, salad, french fries, in potato salad, and as a dipping sauce for chips and strangely pizza.

So what is the history of this dish? As told me by my best Peruvian friend, dozens of Huancaínas (ladies from Huancayo) that I often chat with while buying their potatoes, peppers and cheese in the local Huancayo markets and as also partially documented in local books I’ve read:

The sauce was either developed by and/or named after a farming peasant lady from Huancayo who had, at the time, traveled from her farm in Huancayo, to La Oroya to sell her potatoes to the miners and the railroad workers. The railroad was just being built from Lima to La Oroya and finally to Huancayo to carry the gold ore from the mines to Lima to be smelted, as well as food and passengers between Lima and Huancayo. Taking advantage of the train and the workers, the woman thought that she would be able to get a better price for her potatoes in La Oroya because the area was much too high and cold to grow nearly anything (including potatoes). Despite her optimism, she wasn’t having much luck fetching the prices she wanted. So partially out of desperation, because she was cleaver and a good cook, she quickly threw this sauce together using only the common ingredients she was selling. It seems that there were other similar potato dishes but her recipe somehow stood out as better. Some say it was the thickness of her sauce or that maybe the addition of peppers was her innovation. Undoubtedly, the railroad workers loved her sauce and each week she travelled back and forth from Huancayo to La Oroya selling her new creation. When she wasn’t anywhere to be found, folks in La Oroya used to say: “Where is that Lady from Huancayo with her potatoes?”, which was something like: ¿Dónde están las Papas a la Huancaína? And, when she was around folks would say: “Tengo las Papas a la Huancaína!” which roughly translates as “I’ve got the potatoes from the Lady from Huancayo!”

Later in 1908 railroad organizers holding an event decided that Papas a la Huancaína would be named officially the dish commemorating the inauguration of the worlds highest railroad linking Lima to Huancayo. The railroad is still in operation today, though it is now the second highest railroad in the world. Other recorded history refers to a banquet given to Don Miguel Grau Seminario, then Captain in the National Club June 21, 1879 in which they served a similar dish from this region. So whether or not that Huancaína invented the dish or maybe her recipe was superior, thus it was popularized due to her and she was the namesake we may never exactly know.

 

I fell in love with Papas a la Huancaína on my first trip to Perú, and when I got home I started experimenting with the recipe and the ingredients I could find in the states. Nine months later I served two versions (regular and vegan) of the recipe to over 150 people at a Winter Solstice Feast I was annually involved with. Since then I’ve tried countless variations and can report that it is an official addiction!

Milk, cheese, onion, garlic, saltines, ahi amarillo peppers.

Extremely easy to make if you have all of these ingredients.

Huancaína Sauce is extremely flexible and you can substitute and omit nearly everything; so here is my standard version of the sauce followed by all the substitutions I’ve tried and liked:

Huancaína Sauce

Yields two cups of sauce (enough for four entrees)

Ingredient List:

  • 2/3 cup cubed fresh farmers cheese
  • 1 small onion cubed
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, smashed with the side of a knife blade
  • 4 medium-large Aji Amarillo peppers, deseeded, deveined and coarsely chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons oil (canola is nice)
  • Pepper (possibly salt depending on the cheese) to taste
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup evaporated milk
  • 0 to 3 saltine crackers

Directions: Sauté the onions, peppers and pepper in oil until golden brown, add the garlic and continue to fry until it is golden as well. Throw that, the cheese, and 1/2 cup milk into a blender and blend for 5-10 minutes, adding more milk if it is too thick and one soda cracker square at a time (crushed!) if it is too thin. Many times I don’t even need the crackers. Sometimes I need them all, or more. Frankly I don’t measure any more. I count on one large pepper and per serving and wing the rest.

I think the most common problems with the sauce are sometimes not having enough peppers (so I fry up more) and getting impatient and not blending long enough (you want it super-super velvety smooth!).

Variations

Substitute any of these (in order of my favorites first)

Queso fresco is a fresh farmers' cheese traditionally made in the Perúvian Andes.

Queso fresco is a fresh farmers’ cheese traditionally made in the Perúvian Andes.

Cheese:

  • Queso fresco from Perú, PR, DR, Ecuador, Mexico, Costa Rica (probably other places as well)
  • Firm Tofu
  • 1/2 mozzarella, 1/2 goat cheese
  • 1/2 mozzarella, 1/2 cream cheese
  • 1/2 mozzarella, 1/2 cottage cheese
  • Mascarpone
  • 1/2 jack, 1/2 cottage cheese
  • Muenster cheese
  • Havarti cheese
  • 1/2 cooked rice, 1/2 Tofu
  • Swiss cheese, Gruyere, Krisch
  • Chedder, jack, mozzarella (use this Huancaína Sauce to make Mac and Cheese)
Aji Amarillo (yellow chili pepper) is the most common pepper used in Perúvian cuisine.

Aji Amarillo (yellow chili pepper) is the most common pepper used in Perúvian cuisine.

Peppers:

All fried, seeded and deveined

  • Aji Amarillo peppers fresh
  • Aji Amarillo peppers (frozen)
  • 4 oz. Aji Amarillo pepper paste (sold in jars)
  • Fresh, frozen, canned, Peruvian Rocoto pepper (use much less!)
  • Roasted Yellow peppers and 1/2 Scotch Bonnet (Jamaican pepper)
  • Mexican Chipotle pepper (use much less!)
  • Roasted Red Bell peppers and 1 Cayenne pepper
  • Cooked crab and artichoke hearts
  • Artichoke hearts and a few pine nuts
  • Roasted kale, 1 Jalapeño and more garlic
  • 3/4 Anaheim chilies, 1 Mexican Chipotle pepper
  • Black beans, or pinto beans and 1 Mexican Chipotle pepper

Onion and/or Garlic

Feel free to omit or increase the onion or garlic and/or substitute:

  • Shallots
  • Elephant garlic
  • Roasted fennel

You can use Huancaína sauce served traditionally (or mostly traditional) and not so traditionally in these ways:

  • served over sliced potatoes
  • served as a cold or hot pasta sauce
  • a sauce for a peruvian ravioli dish
  • served as alongside other pasta sauce (second sauce)
  • as a sandwich spread
  • on tacos, in burritos, with taquitos
  • as a spread on bread (use like butter)
  • on top of chili beans
  • on taco sala
  • with french fries
  • in potato salad
  • a dipping sauce for chips or crackers
  • with crudités
  • pizza dipping sauce
  • spooned over any meat or poultry prepared many ways
  • Over scrambled eggs or in/with an omelet
  • Mixed with cooked egg yolks to make deviled eggs

Finally, you can garnish as you want. In the photo I included a tomato slice (I’ve never seen that done before, but I like it). Some garnishes are:

  • hard-boiled eggs
  • black Kalamata olives
  • scallions
  • tomatoes
  • lettuce
  • cooked sliced carrots or beets