Sunday, July 17, 2011

Pollo a la Brasa Day

Did you know that Peruvian gastronomy is considered one of the most varied and original worldwide? Peru holds the Guinness record for the greatest variety and diversity of dishes in the world—with 491 typical dishes, to be more exact. We have and immense array of culinary delights: more than 360 fish and seafood dishes, around 2,000 different soups, just in the coastal region, more than 250 traditional desserts, to only mention a few things! And, in 2006, Lima (Peru’s capital) was declared the “Gastronomical Capital of the Americas” by Madrid Fusion, the World Cup of gourmet cuisine.

During this past decade, several important dates have been added to Peru’s food event calendar: Pisco Day, Pisco Sour Day (which I wrote about in my post “Pucker up . . . It’s Pisco Sour Day:, Peruvian Rum Day, Ceviche Day (Ceviche is a dish typically made from fresh raw fish marinated in lime juice), Día Nacional del Chicharrón de Cerdo Peruano (National Deep-Fried Peruvian Pork Day), and the latest one, Pollo a la Brasa Day, which is to be celebrated every third Sunday of July. As with the other events, the official declaration was published in El Peruano, the official gazette.

But . . . what exactly is “Pollo a la Brasa” and why is it so important to deserve a special day? Also known as “Peruvian Style Chicken”, “Charcoal Chicken” or “Rotisserie Chicken”, it just happens that “Pollo a la Brasa” was declared (in 2004) as a “Peruvian Culinary Specialty” by the National Institute of Culture (INC) and, thus, has turned into another flag-dish. According to Peru’s Minister of Agriculture, as of the second half of the 20th century, “Pollo a la Brasa” has become one of the most consumed gastronomic dishes in Peru across all social strata. The Minister is speculating that Peruvians will consume close to 2 million chickens this Sunday, with consumption rising anywhere from 15% to 20%. The Ministry’s department of Agrarian Competitiveness stated that Peru presently has an important production of chicken, with some 45 million units per month, or a 1.5 million per day. The average annual consumption per capita of the bird comes to some 32 kg (about 70 lbs), one of the highest in South America! I personally love anything chicken and usually buy Peruvian style rotisserie chicken once a month! :)

Let me now tell you a little bit about how “Pollo a la Brasa” came to be . . .

After the Second World War, in the early 50s, Roger Schuler—a Swiss citizen—arrives in Peru to establish a chicken farm business in the town of Santa Clara, in the district of Ate, Lima. Among other things, chickens bring the nuisance of flies along with them. Apparently, an American friend of Schuler told him that there was one color (blue) which was good to keep flies away and—never one to miss a trick—Schuler painted the whole farm in blue! Soon, people around were commenting: “Hey, that crazy guy painted his farm blue! Later on, a bad situation turned into a successful business. The chicken farm went bankrupt, so Schuler put a visible sign on the highway: “All the chicken you can eat for 5 Soles”. It was an instant boom! People started flocking in to “La Granja Azul” (The Blue Farm), the restaurant that he improvised in his own hacienda! However, the restaurant was always so crowded, that it started slowing down service because of the way they were preparing the chicken, in a small grill.

So Roger Schuler decides to contact a friend, another Swiss, Franz Ulrich, who owned and operated a metal mechanics shop and asks him to build an oven to cook the chicken. Thus, the “rotombo” oven—also known as “planetario” or “spiedo”—was invented and the patent registered! This oven had six metal rods and each rod could hold eight baby chickens of less than one kilogram each. The metal rods spin clockwise and, independently, around their own axis, at a very high temperature (generally between between 300 and 370 degrees F) cooking the chicken uniformly, sealing-in the juices and giving it a delicious, slightly charred flavor.

People from all over Lima made their way to La Granja Azul to devour the tender “Pollo a la Brasa”. Back then, La Granja Azul became the only restaurant where the aristocracy of Lima allowed themselves to eat using their hands, and to indulge their appetites, often competing to see who could eat the most chicken in a single lunch. The bill was free for those who could break successive records, and their names and pictures were hung in a special spot in the main salon. Originally (during the 50s and until the early 70s) the consumption of “Pollo a la Brasa” was specific to just the high socioeconomic classes; however, its consumption later came to include the middle and low socioeconomic classes, as well. Its popularity became massive sometime during the 70s.

The success of La Granja Azul was such that other “Pollerías” (restaurants where “Pollo a la Brasa” is served) started opening along the years: The first one was “El Rancho”, which opened in 1957. The owner, Isidoro Steinmann, was also a Swiss citizen and Ulrich’s same machine was installed there. Then came “Pío-Pío”, “Norky’s”, “La Caravana”, “El Cortijo”, “Pardo’s Chicken” (which is my favorite one), just to mention a few. Due to its price, “Pollo a la Brasa” was a dish only for elites and became a lunch delicacy, on Saturdays in particular.

After 60 years, the recipe remains the same: the chicken is seasoned with just salt—cooked over carob tree firewood for the best flavor—served with large French fries, and traditionally eaten with the fingers, without cutlery.

Nowadays, La Granja Azul, can accommodate 450 guests at the same time and, naturally, now “all the chicken you can eat” will cost you just under 60 soles (some US$22).

When we were growing up (this was late 60s-early 70s), I remember that every Saturday evening we would go to Chucuito (a small fishermen bay-town between the Province of Callao and the district of La Punta), to a “Pollería” called “Se Salió el Pollo” (something along the lines of “The Chicken Popped Out”) and buy “Pollo a la Brasa” to go. After some 40 years, this “Pollería” still exists!

There are hundreds of recipes for preparing “Pollo a la Brasa” and every restaurant brags about having their own “secret family recipe”. But, aside from the different touches each one gives to their particular recipe, most people agree that the basic marinade has cerveza negra (dark beer), ají panca (a dark red, mild pepper with a smoky, fruity taste), soy sauce, rosemary, cumin, salt and pepper, among other ingredients. “Pollo a la Brasa” is always served with French fries (never with rice) and with a simple salad of lettuce and tomato, along with different sauces or condiments. I particularly love the “mayonesa de leche” (milk mayonnaise) served at “Pardo’s Chicken” and “La Granja Azul”!

Even though in Peru we traditionally eat everything with rice, the story behind why “Pollo a la Brasa” is always served with French fries is quite simple: Schuler hated rice, hence, he would always serve the chicken with French fries!  :)

If you feel like attempting to prepare “Pollo a la Brasa” but don’t have a special oven, you can cook it in a gas or electric rotisserie oven or on a grill that has a rotisserie set up. If you don’t have any of these, you can also roast the chicken in a regular oven on 350 degrees F or grill it—just keep it at least 12 inches away from the flame over low to medium heat.

“Pollo a la Brasa Recipe”

  • 1 whole chicken without giblets (about 2-3 1/2 lbs—do not use a Kosher chicken since it is already salted)
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 1 tbsp black pepper
  • 1 tbsp aji panca paste (found in Latin markets)
  • 3 tbsp garlic paste
  • 1 tsp ginger, finely grated
  • 1 tsp huacatay (black mint) paste (found in Latin markets)
  • 1 tsp rosemary, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup dark beer
  • 2 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • Salt and black pepper to taste

Season the chicken with salt and pepper.  Mix the rest of the ingredients thoroughly to form a paste, adding more beer if you would like it thinner.  Taste the paste and adjust seasoning as needed. Rub it on the chicken inside and out, under the skin if possible, making sure it does not get cut or broken.  Place chicken in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap.  Let it marinate in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours before cooking it.  Serve with French fries, salad and condiments or sauces (see recipes for three sauces below).  Serves 4.

And here are some sauces for your "Pollo a la Brasa":

Creamy cheese sauce:
  • 1-12oz package queso fresco (“farmers cheese”, found in Latin markets, but may be substituted with feta or ricotta cheese)
  • 1/4 red onion sautéed (with very little oil)
  • 3/4 cup oil
  • 3/4 cup evaporated milk
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric (cook the turmeric in 2 tablespoon hot oil, for 3 seconds)
  • 1 aji amarillo chili (found in Latin markets)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
Blend queso fresco, red onion, oil, milk, turmeric, aji amarillo, salt and pepper, and lime juice in a blender until it becomes creamy.

Aji sauce:
  • 1 cup of cream of aji (6 to 9 ajies in the blender with salt, 1 clove of garlic, ground black pepper, and 1/2 cup oil)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 green onions, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
Mix cream of aji, olive oil, green onions, and lime juice in a medium bowl.

Milk mayonnaise:
  • 1/3 cup very cold evaporated milk
  • 3/4 teaspoon fresh lime juice
  • 1 small garlic clove, peeled
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
  • About 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • Kosher salt to taste
Combine the milk, lemon juice, garlic, and pepper in a 2-cup glass measuring cup. Using a handheld blender (or a blender), buzz on high for 30 seconds until frothy. With the motor running on high, slowly pour in the oil a few drops at a time, and gradually increase this to a fine thread, moving the blender up and down, until the mixture thickens lusciously and resembles a soft mayonnaise. You may need more or less oil. Season with salt to taste. The mayonnaise will last up to 1 week in the fridge.

Photo credits:  All the photos (except for the first one and the two last ones) posted here come from La Granja Azul's page on Facebook.

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