BOGOTA, Colombia — When Pope Francis arrives in Colombia, he will be greeted with one of the nation’s most emblematic dishes: the thick soup known as ajiaco.
The meal prepared with potatoes, chicken, corn and an herb known as guascas has been keeping Bogotanos in the nation’s chilly capital warm since at least the 1800s.
The origin of the dish is unknown but similar soups using starchy root vegetables are found throughout Latin America.
Bogota’s ajiaco is served with a side of heavy cream, avocado and capers that provide a contrasting, acidic punch. It is common in family kitchens and working class cafeterias, a fitting dish, perhaps, for the pontiff known as the “people’s pope.”
Carmenza Morales, the chef who will cook for the pope, said she will prepare a version that stays true to the traditional Bogota recipe while also keeping with the pontiff’s diet. Now aged 80, Francis generally sticks to simple, low-fat meals.
“I have been preparing myself spiritually,” she said. “To welcome the pope, your soul must be calm.”
The term “ajiaco” comes from the word “aji,” or chili in English, though many versions no longer use it as an ingredient. Broadly speaking, ajiaco is considered representative of Latin America’s diverse cultural makeup, a mishmash of flavors that depend heavily on where the dish is prepared.
Cuban intellectual Fernando Ortiz once remarked that, “Cuba is an ajiaco,” referring the fusion of Caribbean, African and Spanish traditions that make up the island’s cuisine.
Culinary traditions in Colombia, a nation of 49 million, vary significantly by region but by the end of the 1800s, ajiaco was considered a national dish. Culinary anthropologists believe earlier versions included beef but chicken was substituted as prices fell. The addition of cream and capers came later.
On restaurant menus, the dish often appears as “ajiaco santafereno,” a reference to the capital city’s former name, Santa Fe, while Colombia was still under Spanish rule.
On Sundays at Felinos Restaurant, chef Yadira Villegas cooks a giant pot of ajiaco that is typically gone by mid-afternoon. Families with children, the elderly and young couples line up outside the small eatery for a savory taste of home.
Owner Alberto Jimenez said that for many Colombians the dish reminds them of tastes and smells of the past.
“It brings back memories of afternoons eating in my grandmother’s kitchen,” he said.
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