What Is Papa a La Huancaina?

Karize Uy

Papa a la Huancaina is an appetizer hailing from the country of Peru. It is usually considered a salad dish and is primarily made of potatoes with a creamy sauce. Unlike other salads, however, the Papa a la Huancaina has a spicy flavor, instead of a sweet or acidic taste that many salads have. This dish is best served cold.

Potatoes are a key ingredient in papa a la Huancaina.
Potatoes are a key ingredient in papa a la Huancaina.

The name Papa a la Huancaina can mean “potatoes, Huancayo style,” with Huancayo referring to a Peruvian city where the dish originated. It is not surprising that the dish came from this city, as Huancayo is very near the Mantaro Valley, where potatoes are grown abundantly, along with corn and carrots. Traditionally, the dish uses yellow potatoes, but the white variety can also be a good substitute.

Black olives are often used to garnish papa a la Huancaina.
Black olives are often used to garnish papa a la Huancaina.

According to a local story, the dish can be traced as far back in the late 1800s, when the train connecting Huancayo to Lima city was being constructed. It was said that women vendors would go around the site, selling their wares to the hungry workers. There was one specific lady who was offering a unique dish made of boiled potatoes topped with a cheese-like sauce, along with some egg slices. The dish became a crowd favorite, and come lunchtime, the workers would ask, “A que hora llega la papa de la Huancaina?” meaning, “What time will the lady with the potatoes from Huancayo arrive?”

Originally, the sauce for the Papa a la Huancaina is made from rocoto, a variety of a spicy red pepper, and some cheese and milk. The cheese was crushed by a mortar and pestle, so the original sauce might have been more textured. Queso fresco, or fresh white cheese, was the particular preference for the dish. Over time, the recipe began to change, and the rocoto was substituted with aji, particularly the aji almarillo, or a yellow chili variety. The use of oil and lemon was also added in many recipes, perhaps to bind the sauce ingredients better.

The use of fresh cheese was mostly retained, though some modernized versions of the Papa a la Huancaina use other cheeses like Swiss or Monterey Jack. Many modern recipes also call for evaporated milk, perhaps to contrast the spicy flavor with some sweetness. The usual presentation for the dish is to put the boiled potatoes on top of some lettuce leaves, with a generous amount of the cheese and chili sauce is poured on the potatoes. The slices of hard-boiled eggs are used as garnishes, along with some black olives, corn, and parsley. Some recipes even suggest that the sauce can be used for pasta dishes.

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