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If you sit down at any neighborhood joint in Colombia for a bite, you will see small bowls filled with something that looks like a watery relish. This is ají, and it is delicious and not at all relishy. Ají is vinegary and salty and a bit spicy, and it is served with all manners of Colombian food, but especially with empanadas, papas rellenas and other fritanga, as it is a perfect complement to heavier fried foods. Along with hogao, the tomato and onion base used for much of Colombian food, ají is one of the defining sauces in Colombian cuisine.
That said, there are many different kinds of ají, and each cook makes theirs slightly differently. There are peanut ajís, and ajís made with avocado, and with red pepper. All have a similar base, however, of green onions, cilantro, and acid. This recipe here is what I have come to know as the most common and most basic of ajís, ubiquitous alongside empanadas.
There are a couple of tricks to making a successful Colombian ají; going in blindly, you are likely to end up with pico de gallo, which is what happened to us the first couple of times we tried to make ajì. We were in the states, visiting my parents, without my boyfriend´s mother´s guidance. We cubed tomato, green onion and cilantro, a lo and behold, had a Mexican condiment on our hands, without really understanding what had gone wrong. So we threw everything in the blender, and ended up with a soupy disaster that tasted fine but that was definitely not recognizable as ají. Far too many batches of ají later, I have a couple of recommendations to help you avoid this outcome: first of all, all ingredients must be cut really small. The green onions are slivered vertically before they are chopped finely, and the tomato and cilantro are minced as small as possible without turning into mush. Second of all, resist the urge to add more tomatoes, as this ají should be heavy on the green onions. Lastly, ají colombiano is made with base of water and white vinegar: it may seem watery made this way, but thats how it should be.
One more thing: this is ají, meaning hot sauce, therefore is should be a bit spicy. Out of laziness (or maldad, evilness), I tend to make the ají spicier if I have to make enough for a large group of people because I`ve learned that at least with a Colombian crowd, the spicier you make it, the longer the ají lasts before it runs out.
Wash the green onions well and cut the roots off. Line the green onions up together and use a knife to sliver them vertically, making at least one long vertical cut per green onion (if you are using spring onions, you will need to make many more vertical cuts per onion). Then chop the onion finely crosswise, using all of the white parts and half of the dark green parts (you will need to repeat the vertical slicing again for the dark green parts befote you chop them).
Place all the chopped onion in a small bowl or jar. Finely chop half a tomato and add it to the onions. Finely chop the cilantro, bruising the leaves as little as possible, and add them to the mix as well. Mince the chile and decide how much you want to include (and whether you want to leave the seeds in, which are the hottest part of the chile), and stir it into the mix along with the vinegar, water, oil and salt. Let the ají sit in the fridge for 30 minutes, then taste it to see if it needs more salt, water or vinegar (if it seems too salty or vinegary, add a bit more water, if it seems flat, add more salt, etc). The colors will be a little less bright (the photos shown here were taken right after the initial preparation, before letting the ají sit), but that means it´s ready to be served.
Serve with empanadas, papas rellenas, or any other Colombian food.