Thursday, June 28, 2012

Keepin' it Real: Peruvian Pollo a la Brasa

If cuisines could have IPOs, Peruvian food would be the bizarro-Facebook. It's only a matter of time before Peruvian food is the new it cuisine and lomo saltado and aji de gallina are as ubiquitous as pad thai and bulgogi.

The real deal - pollo a la brasa from Norky's in Lima's Centro Historico
Peruvian pollo a la brasa is Peru's take on rotisserie chicken. They may not have been the first people to grill chicken rotisserie-style, but they have perfected it. Simple in its preparation - a whole bird rub down with a mildly spicy, herby paste and grilled on a rotisserie over live hardwood coals - yet so intoxicating after you've had your first bite of the flame-kissed skin.

is there any chance something coming from that oven won't be delicious?
I first discovered pollo a la brasa while living in Washington DC, which has a sizable Peruvian population and, fortunately for the rest of us, a significant number of pollerias around town - none better than El Pollo Rico in Arlington. The chicken at El Pollo Rico practically forced me to go on a trip to Peru to track down the real thing; the food was amazing, but the views weren't so bad either.

The Andes - High on the Inca Trail
Ok, back to the chicken. After you've devoured the chicken and have picked through every nook and cranny of the remaining carcass and soaked up the juice sitting on your plate with french fries (or fried yuca), you realize that the secret to the whole operation is the unbelievably addicting rub that the chicken bathes in before being grilled. The seasonings are a little difficult to figure out by researching online, but I can definitively tell you that the mystery herb you are looking for is huacatay, also referred to as black mint - an herb found in the Andes in South America and used in a variety of Peruvian dishes.

Huacatay can be somewhat difficult to track down - it should be available in your local Mexican grocery or can be purchased online. (I can confirm that Dos Hermanos in Ypsilanti carries Peruvian groceries.) If you look up recipes for Peruvian pollo a la brasa online, you will see that lots of them call for mint as a substitute for huacatay. I disagree - if you're not going to keep it real, don't bother, there is no substitute here.

The only other moderately difficult ingredients are aji amarillo paste, which is a paste made from the mild Peruvian yellow pepper. Wherever you are able to find huacatay, aji amarillo will not be far away - they are the staples of Peruvian cuisine. The last unique ingredient is achiote seasoning, which is prevalent in Mexican food but has found its way into South American food as well.

Most online recipes call for a measly teaspoon or so of huactay per chicken. I'm not buying that though, I dial up the huacatay to at least a tablespoon or so per chicken. Don't be concerned when you first pop the top off the huacatay jar - it does not look or smell like good eats, but it somehow magically transforms into a deeply herby flavor as it roasts.
The rest of the rub is made with a bit of the aji amarillo, cumin, garlic, black pepper, salt and fresh lemon juice. Rub it all down and let it rest overnight.

I do not have a rotisserie attachment to my grill (yet), so I grill the chicken indirectly over lump hardwood charcoal. I typically grill my chicken one of two ways: 1) take a whole chicken and cut out its backbone, allowing you to "butterfly" the chicken - I skip the step of removing the breast bone by flipping the chicken so that the breast bone is facing the cutting board and push down on it to crack the breastbone, allowing the chicken to lay flat. 2) Buy a whole cut up chicken. Set up your grill for indirect grilling. Once the coals have ashed over, place the dark meat closer to the coals as it will take longer to cook than the white meat. With the butterflied chicken, keep the legs pointed towards the fire for the first 15 minutes or so, then flip skin side down with the breasts towards the coals, then rotate again with the legs towards the coals for the last 15 minutes or so, similar to the method shown here. Works perfectly every time.

Serve them up with a little bit of the spicy Peruvian green sauce that you'll find at all the pollerias in Lima. Grill some corn or potatoes. I need to stop now before I start searching for flights.

Peruvian Pollo a la Brasa
2 tspn. salt
1 tspn. ground black pepper
1 tablespoon huacatay paste
1 tablespoon aji amarillo paste
1/2 tspn. ground cumin
1/2 tspn. achiote seasoning
2 tspn minced garlic
Juice from 1/2 lemon

1. Mix everything together and rub the chicken & refrigerate for a couple hours or overnight.
2. Grill over indirect heat.
3. Eat with green sauce.
4. Travel to Peru and hike the Inca Trail.


  1. I personally prefer the yellow sauce that I get at the local Crisp & Juicy in Arlington, VA. Do you have a recipe for that?

    1. I don't specifically know the yellow sauce you are referring to, but if it is yellow, it is very likely that is coming from aji amarillo paste. I did a little searching and this recipe may be what you are looking for:

  2. Is it possible to bake this chicken?

    1. Definitely. I have made it roasted before in the winter when I didn't feel like getting the grill out. You can cook it just like you would do any roasted chicken.

    2. Yes,it's almost as good Add: -Salt, -Black pepper, -Cumin,-Oregano, vinegar, 1 Tablespoon of oil X 2 teaspoon vinegar, Aji no moto also noun as "Monosodium glutamato".

  3. This makes me hungry. Having a serious jones for El Pollo Rico right now. I found a great recipe that gets crazy close to El Pollo Rico. The site is called They have a few Pollo a la Brasa recipes and also seem to cover oven roasting as well(?) I found the best way to roast any chicken is to use Thomas Kellers method. This is a must watch for anyone that thinks oven roasted chicken is old-hat:

  4. How many pounds of Chicken is this good for please?

  5. I order the huacatay paste and the aji amarillo paste from Amazon!