If I’ve learned one thing since I’ve been in Ecuador, it’s that every meal is accompanied by aji, a type of salsa made with hot peppers. It is a bright orange yellow color with a sweet and spicy flavor and after tasting it a few times, I knew I needed to learn how to make it. A local Ecuadorian, looking over his shoulder to make sure no one was listening, let me in on the secret.
One of the main ingredients in aji is the tomate de arbol or tree tomato and it bears a little explanation. It is a fruit that grows on a tree; the most common variety in Quito has a red mottled skin. When sliced open, you notice a very tomato like shape, gorgeous yellow flesh on the outside edges, seeds and pulp in cells in the center. I had already tried the tree tomato as a juice. It has a mild tomato-like flavor but is a little sweeter than our common tomatoes.
I’ve looked online to see if I can find a place to buy them in either the US or the UK and the best I can come up with are the seeds for the tree itself. If you would like to grow your own, the seeds are available from rareseeds.com in the US or from Victoriana Nursery Gardens in the UK.
An online hunt will also show that people are searching for the fruit – an enterprising farmer might find an unexpected market waiting for this delicious fruit. I do know that it is being grown in New Zealand and marketed as the Tamarillo – farmers didn’t want to confuse people and make them think it might be an actual tomato.
Recipe for Aji
2 Tree Tomatoes or Tamarillo
2 fresh hot red peppers
4 cups water
1 white onion
1 spring onion
1/4 cup of cilantro and/or parsley
salt to taste
1/4 olive oil or more to taste
chochos, an Ecuadorian legume, optional
Place your whole tree tomatoes, the peppers, and about 4 cups of water in a sauce pan. Bring to a boil until the skins of the tree tomato split. Let cool.
While you’re waiting for this to cool, finely chop both kinds of onion and the cilantro/parsley.
Take peppers and the tree tomatoes out of the water. Seed the peppers and place them in a blender. Remove the skin from the tree tomatoes*** and place the pulp in the blender. Add the cooking water. Blend until you have a puree.
Season the puree with salt and olive oil. If you want to emmulsify the oil, go ahead and blend one more time. Pour this mixture into a bowl. Add the chopped onions and the cilantro/parsley. If you would like, add the chochos as well… these aren’t necessary but they are an added source of protein. More about them in another post!
Your sauce is ready to use!
This mixture will thicken overnight. I believe there must be some kind of pectin in the fruit because it makes a lovely gel. We just place it back in the blender and add a little more water to use it the second day.
***UPDATE on 5/9/2014*** I’ve since made more aji and found that removing the seeds from the Tomate de Arbol seems to make a difference with the pectin levels. My sauce did not gel overnight when I removed all the seeds. Give it a try!