Papa a la Huancaina is a classic Peruvian appetizer of potatoes smothered with a delicious cheese and chili sauce. It’s no doubt unusual if you’re not familiar with it, but the flavors are incredibly tasty and it’s easy too.
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It’s many years ago now since I was in Peru, but I found it a magical place to visit. In fact, I visited once and loved it so much, I went again a couple years later and persuaded my parents they really ought to visit too. It’s both a beautiful country and has a fascinating history and culture.
The food, just like the people, is a true melting pot of ancient indigenous ingredients, more recent imports and styles from around the world. This dish is in many ways more classically Peruvian than some other more fusion dishes, but it’s actually a relatively recent creation.
What are the origins of Papa a la Huancaina?
“Papa” is the Latin American Spanish word for potato and “Hauncaina” literally means a woman from Huancayo, a city in Central Peru. So the name translates as “potato in the style of the Huancayo woman”. Let me explain…
Huancayo is connected to Lima, the capital, by one of the highest railways in the world, the trans-Andrean railway. The story goes, as the railway was being built, various people would come to sell food to the workers. In order to distinguish her dish, an enterprising lady from Hauncayo created a sauce to top potatoes from a few easy-to-find items.
It quickly became a hit and people would specifically ask “a que hora llega la papa a la Huancaina” (when are the potato from the Huancayo lady arriving?). How true the story is remains unclear, but I can see it at least being partly true.
Either way, it’s a firm favorite nationwide these days. It helps that it’s flavorful and is as simple as blending a few ingredients together.
One thing that has changes from the original dish is the rocoto chili peppers have been changes to the more popular Peruvian aji amarillo (as used in aji de gallina, a delicious Peruvian chicken stew). Otherwise, the simple sauce is much the same.
You typically serve this with lettuce on the side, which cuts through the richness of the sauce. A standard garnish is hard-boiled egg and black olives.
Potatoes in Peruvian cooking
While you may think of potatoes as being more synonymous with European cooking, potatoes actually originate from the Andes mountains, modern day Peru and Bolivia. They were introduced to Europe after Columbus discovered the region (this Smithosian article gives a fascinating insight to the potato’s history).
There are over 3000 varieties of potato in Peru, more than anywhere else in the world. You’ll see them in a wide range of dishes with favorites including this and lomo saltado. There’s even a potato institute based in Peru, which conducts research into the tubers to find climate-resistant varieties etc.
Oh and you may wonder why I specifically say Latin American Spanish for the word “papa”. The reason is in Spain, potatoes are called “patatas”. Being brought up in the UK, the first Spanish I learned was the Castillian (Spain) version, where papa means father. I remember being a bit confused about all the talk of papas in the kitchen when I was first in Mexico!
Can you use Huancaina sauce for anything else?
The sauce is so easy to make and in many ways, you are as well to make a relatively large batch when you make it. So, it’s worth having a few ideas on how to use it beyond this most traditional way:
- Use it as a sauce with pasta, noodles or rice.
- Serve it as a dip for raw veggies, tortilla chips or fries – yucca fries would also be good.
The sauce keeps well in the fridge for a couple days, so definitely don’t let any extra go to waste!
Whether you’re already familiar with this Peruvian appetizer or not, papa a la Huancaina is an easy and flavorful dish. For just a few ingredients, the sauce has a great creamy flavor with a little chili kick.
You can serve these potatoes as a side to say chicken or other grilled meats as well, and use the sauce for various other things. However you serve it, be sure to give this tasty dish a try.
Try these other Peruvian favorites:
- Anticuchos de carne (chili-marinated meat skewers)
- Tuna stuffed avocado (palta rellena de atún)
- Scallop ceviche
- Plus get more South American recipes in the archives.
Papa a la Huancaina
- 4 yellow potatoes approx 1 lb/450g
For Huancaina sauce
- ½ cup evaporated milk 120ml
- 4 oz queso fresco 113g
- 2 saltine crackers (plain wheat crackers)
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 tbsp aji amarillo chili paste
- 2 hard boiled eggs or more, to taste
- 8 black olives approx
- 4 leaves iceberg lettuce approx
- Put the potatoes in a pot and cover with water. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook approximately 10 minutes until the potatoes are tender to a knifepoint, but not overly soft. Remove from the heat, drain and cool enough to handle. Peel and cut them into thick slices.
- While the potatoes are cooking, make the sauce by putting all the ingredients (evaporated milk, queso fresco, crackers, oil and aji amarillo) in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth.
- Put some lettuce on serving plates, put potato slices on top and pour over some of the sauce (you can use more/less to taste). Top with slices of olive and some slices of hard boiled egg on the side.
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