Chaulafán de Pollo
How much do you know about South American food? I don't mean to be presumptuous, but if you haven't been there or don't have any ties to the region, I'd guess not very much. Maybe you've heard of a few iconic dishes: asado in Argentina, feijoada in Brazil, arepas in Venezuela. Or maybe, like many people, your picture of it is shaped by the ubiquity of Mexican food, and you blithely assume that some form of tacos, burritos and enchiladas (with maybe a few regional variations) are eaten all the way from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego.
I realized how misguided this belief was the moment I stepped off a plane in Peru ten years ago. All around me were things I'd never heard of and none of the things I had. There were certainly no tacos, burritos and enchiladas - in fact, there weren't even any tortillas. Instead there was boiled corn with enormous, starchy kernels; multicolored potatoes drenched in spicy peanut sauce; thick meat and bean stews eaten with rice and pickled onions; buckets of a vibrant yellow condiment called salsa de ají; plantains served fried, mashed, boiled and stuffed; and possibly my favorite discovery, humitas: moist cakes of sweet, fresh corn, salty cheese and onions, wrapped in cornhusks and steamed. There were a few names I recognized such as ceviche and tamales, but neither of the Peruvian versions bore much resemblance to what I knew (though they were undoubtedly better than any I'd ever had). I came back totally entranced with the flavors of this Andean culinary wonderland, but with little to no literature in existence on the subject, I had no idea how to even begin to recreate them myself.
In the last decade there have been a few advances on the book front (this one, for example, has become the gold standard), but there's still a frustrating lack of anything really in-depth on most South American cuisines. You can imagine my excitement, then, to stumble upon Laylita's Recipes, a food blog that is not only beautifully written and photographed, but features several of the very dishes I fell in love with in Peru. Surprisingly, though, it's not about Peruvian food at all.
Laylita's Recipes is written by Layla, an Ecuadorian expat living with her French husband and son in Seattle (if only I'd found her blog a year ago, I'd have begged her for a hands-on lesson!). While she occasionally strays into French classics or her own creations, the main focus of her site is the food of her homeland, and specifically of the southern province of Loja where she grew up (which borders on Peru, which might explain why her versions of things look so familiar to me). What I love about her is that she's a natural teacher, explaining everything from peeling green plantains to stuffing empanadas in such clear, simple terms that I almost feel like it's second nature before I've even attempted it. Her stories are also wonderful; I particularly loved reading about how she used to make humitas as a child, first harvesting the corn in her family's fields, then sitting around with the neighbor women shucking bushels of it while they scared the children with stories about the devil that lived in a nearby tree. And when I finally make it to Quito I'll be sure to keep her food-focused guide to the city very close at hand.
It's her recipes, though, that are the greatest treasure here. I've made a few of them already to rave reviews: her creamy, deeply savory locro de papas, for example, was perfect comfort food for a chilly spring evening a few weeks ago, and her patacones with ají criollo were the surprise hit of a recent south-of-the-border-themed dinner party. On top of that I've bookmarked easily a dozen more: her sugar-dusted, cheese-stuffed empanadas de viento; her coconut-bathed pescado encocado, the charmingly-named llapingachos, her stuffed-plantain bolones de verde, her beer- and tamarind-laced seco de carne and of course her humitas, which I'm impatiently waiting for corn season in order to try.
Much harder was narrowing the field down to one recipe to feature here. I finally settled on a recipe as delicious as it is curious in origin: chaulafán, a rice dish born of the fusion between Chinese and Ecuadorian culinary cultures. While the Chinese community in Ecuador dates back to an influx of miners in the 19th century, no one seems sure of exactly when their fried rice started sporting a distinctly Ecuadorian personality (or when Ecuadorians adopted it as a dish of their own). What's clear, though, is that both sides gained something from the exchange: a dish of spicy, sizzling rice punctuated with crusty pork, tender chicken, creamy bits of egg, sweet raisins and aromatic cumin and cilantro. Topped with hot sauce, tangy curtido (pickled red onions), and cool, buttery avocado, the result is a feisty mosaic of flavors, temperatures and textures, not to mention a whole new perspective on the idea of 'fusion cuisine'.
And after one bite, I swear you'll be ready to board the next flight south to find out just what else you've been missing.
p.s. see the first post in this series here.
Chaulafán de Pollo (Ecuadorian Fried Rice)
Like a lot of Chinese or Chinese-influenced food, there's more work involved in prep than in actual cooking here. Rice (as well as a couple of carrots) needs to be cooked, eggs need to be scrambled, veggies and herbs need to be chopped, and chicken needs to be shredded. For the sake of time, actually I've taken the liberty of adapting the recipe to use a store-bought rotisserie chicken instead of boiling a whole one. The difference in taste is minimal, and the shortcut shaves easily an hour-plus off the time count. Of course if you happen to have some raw chicken lying around or just want to keep things as traditional as possible, I certainly won't hold it against you; just head on over to Layla's recipe for the from-scratch instructions.
source: adapted from Laylita's Recipes
serves: 6-8, generously
For the rice:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil or butter
2 tablespoons white onion, diced
3 1/4 cups (800ml) chicken broth
3 cups (550g) rice
Salt, to taste
For the chaulafan:
3 tablespoons vegetable oil or butter
1 large onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, crushed or minced
4 oz (120g) pancetta or bacon, diced
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce, divided
7 tablespoons soy sauce, divided
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon achiote powder (or turmeric)
6 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro (coriander), divided
hot chile powder, to taste
meat from 1 large rotisserie chicken, torn into bite-sized pieces
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
6 eggs, scrambled in a little oil
1 cup (140g) frozen peas
2 large carrots, peeled, cooked and diced
½ cup (75g) raisins
2 bunches green (spring) onions, finely chopped
To serve: avocado slices, ají or hot sauce, curtido (pickled onions), and ketchup
To cook the rice, heat the oil or butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat, add the onions and the rice and stir until the grains are well-coated. Add the chicken broth, bring to a boil, and reduce the heat to low. Cover the pot tightly and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the rice is just cooked.
Heat the 3 tablespoons butter or oil over medium-high heat in a large (at least 12-inch/30cm) frying pan or wok. Add the chopped onions, garlic, pancetta or bacon, 1 tablespoon of the Worcestershire sauce, 1 tablespoon of the soy sauce, cumin, achiote powder, 3 tablespoons of the cilantro and hot chile powder to taste; cook for about 5-8 minutes or until the onions are soft.
Add the cooked rice, chicken meat, and diced bell peppers. Continue to fry, stirring frequently, for another 5 minutes. Stir in the remaining soy sauce, remaining Worcestershire sauce, scrambled eggs, peas, carrots, and raisins. Remove from the heat and fold in the remaining 3 tablespoons of cilantro and green onions.
Serve with avocado slices, ají or hot sauce, pickled onions, and ketchup, if you like.