Hearty and creamy Colombian chicken potato soup (ajiaco) that’s perfect for a cold night or comforting Sunday dinner.
Colombian Soup Inspirations
My wife and I decided to take an impromptu trip to Colombia and created a food and culture itinerary that was Anthony Bourdain's "Parts Unknown" meets The Amazing Race. We hit Bogota, Medellin, and Cartegana in 5 ½ days. Bogota was the first stop and we literally jumped in a taxi from the airport headed to downtown.
The taxi ride was momentous for two reasons: 1. - the driver blasted Willie Gonzalez through the radio and sang just as loudly with fervor and enthusiasm and 2. - The front tires were misaligned so badly to the right that to drive straight ahead the driver had steer to the left sharply. I was so crunk from the music I just rolled with it, like wth!
We reached our downtown destination and enjoyed street performances, street food, poetry readings before capping the night with a healthy bowl of Ajiaco Santafereno.
What is ajiaco?
Ajiaco a delightful and hearty regional Colombian chicken and potato soup or stew. It’s very creamy, but there is no dairy present. The creaminess actually comes from the different potatoes used which when cooked over time breakdown into a creamy texture. Authentic ajiaco has a grassy herb like flavor which comes from the leafy ingredient guascas. For the best ajiaco, you have to go to Bogota where its a star at Sunday dinner!
If you find yourself in Bogota, you’ll be fortunate to find many restaurants that serve really good ajiaco. However, it’s worth it to make your way to La Puerta Falsa. It serves old school Bogota dishes. The tamales and the ajiaco alone are worth the trip. It’s small and gets crowded so choose an off peak time to go unless you don’t mind waiting in line.
Different Types of Ajiaco: Colombian vs Cuban vs Peruvian
You will hear references to Cuban or Peruvian ajiaco, but they’re very different dishes. Cuban versions may have different types of meats (beef, pork, and chicken are in play). Peruvians go heavy on the garlic, include mint, and dried chili peppers (aji). Cuban and Peruvian versions both tend to be a bit spicy. Colombians prefer milder and it truly is about a chicken and potato soup with emphasis on the potatoes, particularly those native to the area ((criolla, pastusa, and sabanera). But it’s the guascas that sets it apart.
What ingredients go into Ajiaco?
Given the reliance on native potatoes and guascas, in this soup, you’d be hard-pressed to make truly “authentic” ajiaco. However, with some resourcefulness, you can come close. I’m told guascas is simply a weed that grows in the U.S. including New York’s Central Park. I ain’t about that foraging life, so just copped it online at Amazon. Also, though not the same you can go heavy on bay leaves to mimic the flavor that guascas imparts. For the potatoes, the Criolla is one you might be able to find. I often see frozen ones in Latin American based markets. However, there are easy substitutes you can find in any grocery store.
- Criolla - substitute with Yukon gold potatoes
- Sabanera - substitute with Russet potatoes
- Pastusa - substitute with New potatoes
How to make Colombian Ajiaco?
For this soup, you have to treat the broth right. You have to take a stepwise approach to adding ingredients and building flavor on flavor. It starts with cooking the chicken and aromatics (herbs and onions) first, then layering in the different potatoes, and then the corn and epis seasoning.
In my mind the two ingredients that make this soup work are the papas criollas and the guascas. The non-dairy creamy thickness comes from the small potatoes dissolving into the broth during the cooking process. Most domestic U.S. potatoes don’t dissolve the same way so the trick is to take whatever potatoes (Russets work well) you’re using and grate them into the soup.
While the potatoes provide the ideal texture, it’s the gauscas that provides that unique flavor. So if you’re inclined order online. It will provide a very grassy flavor to the soup to make it pop! It’s hard to explain, but you’ll know it when you try it. I had ajiaco in a small little spot in Bogota.
The restaurant probably seated 10 people max, but if the soup wasn’t so hearty I would have tried multiple bowls. What I noticed distinctly was the presence of an ingredient my palate had never experienced, and I’ve tried a lot of shit. When I made my first batch I used a combination of bay leaves, curry leaves, and thyme but it wasn’t the same. It was damn good, but not the same.
You can use a good commercial stock for this soup, but I prefer to make my own homemade version which has more depth of flavor and complexity to it. Plus you can control salt levels when making your own. I find most store-bought rely too much on salt.
I did add my own twist. Ever since I learned how to make Haitian Beef and Pumpkin Soup Joumou which calls for adding epis which is a Haitian seasoning blend of herbs, garlic, and peppers that serves as the base seasoning in many of their recipes.
Once you’ve gotten the desired thick consistency, you can add chunks of potatoes to cook those last minutes. I finish my soup with cilantro and lime juice.
What to serve with ajiaco?
It depends on your preference. When I was in Bogota, mine was served with capers and avocado. In my research I’ve also seen it served with rice and sour cream. Try some or all!
SIMILAR ETHNIC SOUP RECIPES
making this chicken potato soup recipe
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- 2 large bone-in skin-on chicken breasts
- 1 large onion chopped
- 5 cloves garlic chopped
- 2 tbsp kosher salt
- 2 tbsp ground black pepper
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
- ½ lb frozen papas criollas or russets potatoes
- 1 lb mixed potatoes red &Yukon Gold, peeled and cut into bite-size chunks
- 3 ears fresh corn cut into quarters or thirds
- 1 bunch cilantro with stems, washed and bound together
- 1 bunch green onions tips clipped, washed and bound together
- 6 guascas leaves
- 2 bay leaves
- ¼ cup epis seasoning
- Place the chicken breasts in a baking dish topped with the onion, garlic, salt, and pepper. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
- Remove chicken from refrigerator and allow pieces to come to room temperature.
- Heat the olive oil in a heavy bottomed lidded pot over medium-high heat.
- Add the chicken along with marinade ingredients to the pot and brown the chicken on both sides.
- Pour in the stock, add the guascas, bay leaves, green onions and salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, skimming foam, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, until chicken is cooked through, 10-15 minutes. Remove chicken and reserve broth.
- Add frozen papas criollas (if using russet potatoes, peel and coarsely grate first) and more seasoning with the salt and pepper. Simmer until potatoes begging to break down about 30 minutes. Feel free to aid the process by using the backside of a wooden spoon to mash the potatoes against the sides of the pot until you get the consistency you desire.
- Meanwhile, add the Yukon and New potatoes to the pot and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until almost tender, 10 to 15 minutes.
- While potatoes simmer cut the chicken into shreds
- Add the chicken back to the pot. Add cilantro, corn, the epis, salt and pepper and mix well. Then simmer 15-20 minutes
- Serve topped with avocados, capers, and sour cream