Desperately Seeking Peruvian Peppers (in California)

In this week's newsletter, meet the Orange County lawyer who grows ajis amarillos—and then gives them away.

Close-up of Peru’s beloved ají chiles—grown in California.
Close-up of Peru’s beloved ají chiles—grown in California.
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My mother-in-law hails from Cochabamba, Bolivia. I spent one of our first meals together learning about the exhaustive process she goes through to plant some special South American pepper seed in her garden. At the end of our discussion, she pulled a standard office envelope from her desk and stoically revealed a collection of dirty seeds inside. You’d have thought she was showing me the family diamonds. The right peppers, to those who take this sort of thing seriously, are a very big deal.

Just ask Javier van Oordt. This Orange County attorney shares a passion for Andean peppers with my mother-in-law, cultivating them in his backyard and giving them away. In “Hot Pepper Advocate,” Altacontributor Gustavo Arellano joins van Oordt in his Laguna Niguel garden to learn about the coveted ají amarillopepper, a Peruvian import that’s become popular with West Coast chefs—some of whom get their ajís amarillos directly from van Oordt himself.

While ají amarillo is native to Peru, this yellow or orange pepper appears as a star ingredient on menus throughout California. Limón Rotisserieand Fresca, both in San Francisco, feature ají amarillo. Concord’s Limaand Ajiin Long Beach add the pepper’s subtle flavors to dishes, and chef José Navarro of Santa Rosa’s Sazón regards ají amarillo as “essential.”

But unless restaurants have a hookup like van Oordt, they are likely using frozen, jarred, or powdered ají amarillo. It is all but impossible to buy fresh ají amarillo grown in the United States, as evidenced by numerous online discussionsdevoted to the search

Short of marriage and getting an in-law with a direct connection to South America, ordering ají amarillo seeds onlinemay be the best path to tasting this Peruvian treat. They’re even available on Amazon—and, yes, shipping is free.

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