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Aji means chilli peppers in Spanish. Though they are found throughout South America, they are extensively used in the Peruvian cuisine. Its botanical name is Capsicum baccatum. The Aji plants (the domesticated variety) grow up to five feet, characterized by white flowers with a golden green corolla and large leaves. The size of the pepper pods vary anywhere between 2cm to 15cm in length. They are known for their fruity-spice flavor , although they are available in varied flavors. Aji de gallina, a chicken dish made with Aji Amarillo (yellow peppers) and Lima butter bean salad, a salad made tomatoes and green Aji are two of the many popular dishes of Peru.

The History of Aji Peppers

The existence of thesepeppers can be dated back up to almost 6000 years in South America. The Moche civilization(100 to 500 AD) put a spotlight on these peppers when they began to incorporate them in their artwork. Christopher Columbus is said to have globalized the Aji peppers through his legendary voyages. It is because of him that they have spread to Europe, the Indian subcontinent, Europe and the Far East.

Methods of Cooking:

These peppers can be used in just about all the known methods of cooking as they are a very versatile spice. They can be roasted, stewed, steamed, pan fried, stir fried, roasted, pickled and pureed either separately or with vegetables and meat.

Medicinal and Nutritive Values:

Apart from the known fact that peppers have high Vitamin C content which is good for Common Cold, they are also high in Potassium which is good for the muscle quality maintenance and for the electrolyte balance in the body. The compound Capsaicin present in the Aji peppers is medically used as an analgesic for reducing the Herpes zoster related pain, Arthritic pain, headaches, Diabetic Neuropathy and post Mastectomy pain.

Selection, Buying and Storage of Aji Peppers

Fresh peppers are found in all the local markets of South America. If one is living anywhere outside South America, one can find dried peppers or Aji paste in bottles in any Latin store. The fresh peppers can be stored in refrigerator in air tight plastic bags. The dried variety is easier to store as it require less maintenance. The dried peppers can be stored in air tight containers or in air tight plastic bags. It is advised to keep them sealed because they become prone to insect infestation.

Types of Aji Peppers:

In Peru, there are 4 popular varieties.

Aji Amarillo: These peppers are yellow in color but they turn orange when they mature. They are used in the Peruvian dishes like Papa a la Huancaina and Causa Rellena. Aji Amarillo is also sold in the paste form.

Aji Panca: These peppers are about 8 to 13cm long and they have a dark red-burgundy color. The Aji Panca peppers have a spicy, yet mildly fruity flavor.

Aji Limo : They are a smaller variety( 4 to 8cm). The Limo peppers are grown in the northern part of Peru. When they mature, the color varies from red, yellow and orange. They have a tendency to shrivel and elongate when they are dried.

Aji Pucamucho : The Pucamucho is a small, wild variety. They are found mostly in the Peruvian jungles. When they mature, they have a bright yellow hue.

Interesting facts about Aji Peppers:

· The word 'aji' is of pre-Colombian (Taino) origin.

· Capsaicin from the peppers are used in making pepper spray which is used for self defense.

· The ground chillis are used by farmers to keep away the wild elephants from their crops.