When I was a kid, I remember the first “different” food that caught my attention was fried rice from our neighborhood Chinese restaurant, the Golden Wall. I was well familiar with rice, of course, since like all right-thinking people we had rice with just about every meal. But fried rice? That was different.
In the 40 years or so since that food memory was imprinted on my brain, I’ve gone through a host of other obsessions, ranging from a nation’s cuisine to a single, regional variation of one dish (Hello, Bún bò Huế!). Some I’ve just eaten at restaurants, but for the most part I’ve spent some time in the kitchen at least trying to reproduce the food I was craving.
These days my obsessions are easier to pull off, due in part to the numerous markets stocking ingredients from all over the world, and if by chance there’s something I can’t find in a store here, I can always order it online. And that brings me to my newest obsession, as well as a happy story about a market that let me bring it to fruition.
I have been enjoying the food at the Catahoula Hotel lately, where the food is mostly Peruvian. Peruvian food has been touted as the next big trend in the culinary world for a few years, but it’s been slow to take off here. I don’t know why that is, exactly, because it’s a wonderful, diverse cuisine. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I’ve gotten to satisfy my craving for one dish in particular: causa.
When I described it to my wife the other night, it occurred to me that causa doesn’t necessarily sound appetizing to a North American palate: essentially it’s chilled, seasoned mashed potatoes topped with meat, seafood and/or vegetables, and usually served with avocado and a spicy sauce.
Chilled mashed potatoes are no more odd than the potato salad that graces just about every picnic table in creation this time of year, and when you season those potatoes with a little aji Amarillo paste, you’re in business. In South America there are more varieties of chile and potato than you can imagine. We still don’t have access to the potatoes, but I’ve started to see some of the chiles in local shops like Norma’s Sweet Shop & Bakery, on Banks street. When I was there last, I found Goya brand aji Amarillo and aji rocotto pastes, and I was told that they usually stock the Amarillo peppers in the freezer, whole.
When I decided I was going to make causa, I was resigned to temporarily substituting a mix of other peppers for the aji Amarillo; fortunately that wasn’t necessary, but if push came to shove, I’d probably use a red/yellow bell pepper and a few dried ancho chiles. I’m glad it wasn’t necessary.
The potatoes are very simply prepared: boil them whole, drain, and when they’re cool enough to handle, skin and mash them. For 2 pounds of potatoes, add about 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil and a tablespoon of aji Amarillo chile paste. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then reserve in the fridge. From there, how you top it is up to you. Do a search for causa recipes for some ideas, but don’t be afraid to let inspiration guide you. At the Catahoula, I had one recently with spicy raw tuna that was excellent, and when I made it recently I used poached cod and a corn salsa.
I will be grateful to anyone who wants to share a recipe for causa in the comments, and feel free to discuss a dish or cuisine you’ve been obsessed with.