SANTA MARTA, COLOMBIA — In a well-lit plaza near the center of town, I bought some empanadas from a small stand. The couple selling them was neatly dressed and well-groomed, looking more like college kids than refugees from Venezuela, Colombia's troubled neighbor to the east. The refugees blended in seamlessly with the strolling romancers, lounging elders and spandex-clad exercisers, and I assumed they were locals until I saw the green sauce they served with their empanadas. That sauce, called guasacaca, is a part of home they could not leave behind. And the Colombians surely feel the same thing about their red counterpart, aji picante.
Where there are chile peppers, there are chile sauces. And where there is chile sauce there is a choice between green and red. Red chiles are fully ripened, and pack a distinct sweetness along with their heat. Green chiles are picked before they ripen, and have a slightly bitter, pungent and more complex flavor.
In New Mexico, where chiles dominates the local cuisine, no restaurant order is complete without a response to the official state question: "Red or green?" In the northern part of South America, the red vs. green divide follows the boundary between Colombia and Venezuela. Colombians take their chiles in the form of a sharp red sauce called aji picante, while Venezuelans, including the refugees in that plaza in Santa Marta, prefer the smooth, non-picante green chile sauce known as guasacaca.
There are as many versions of aji picante and guasacaca as there are kitchens. In both countries, their respective sauces are applied to savory substrates like beans, meat, plantains and empanadas. Aji picante contains red chile, and sometimes tomatoes, with cilantro and onion tops being the only green components. In the case of the relatively mild guasacaca, which is sometimes called Venezuelan guacamole, the green color comes from bell peppers, avocado, cilantro and parsley.
The Venezuelan refugees in the Santa Marta plaza, two of about 3 million who'd been welcomed by the Colombian government, served their empanadas with a guasacaca thin enough to be squirted from a squeeze bottle. Instead of avocado, their version was thickened with powdered milk and a shot of mayo — truly a guasacaca recipe for a tight budget, lean as these entrepreneurial Venezuelans, but strong enough to get the job done. It added a dose of earthy green plant flavor and creaminess to enhance the meat-filled pastry.
After discovering guasacaca I kept my Airbnb blender busy as I experimented with various formulations of this glorious green condiment. I put it on boiled yucca, pollo asado, fried fish, even leftover ceviche. Meanwhile, I was putting in work getting to know guasacaca’s fiery alter ego, the red chile sauce aji picante, ubiquitous in Colombia, but never quite the same.
Each visit to a restaurant included a new version of aji picante to be studied. Later, I would often attempt to recreate it in my rental kitchen. Unlike guasacaca, aji picante doubles as a marinade, which I was happy to learn in the mountains south of Medellin, where it is used to soften the exquisitely flavored and well-exercised (aka tough) Colombian beef.
The large eggs from the red chickens behind my casita, meanwhile, seem to have been specially created for the purpose of giving aji picante a place to shine. To have a batch of aji picante on hand is all the reason one needs to cook anything. In "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who grew up very near Santa Marta, aji picante was rubbed on the walls to cure Rebecca’s pica. It didn’t stop her from eating dirt, any more than it stops me from eating food.
The proportions are highly subjective, and dependent on your personal taste, but here is a framework to get you started.
½ cup water
½ cup white vinegar (cider vinegar works too)
1 habanero, or other hot red chile, in quantity that gives you the heat you can handle and enjoy (I need to make it hot enough that my wife won't drink it all)
3 green onions, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoon lime juice
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup cilantro
½ cup chopped red bell pepper
½ cup chopped, seeded tomatoes
Add water, vinegar, chile, oil, lime juice, salt and the white parts of the onion to a blender and liquefy. Add cilantro, red bell pepper, tomatoes and onion tops. Pulse a few times to blend these final ingredients as finely as you like. Serve immediately or let sit overnight to develop the flavor. Season with vinegar.
Like its red Colombian cousin, a range of proportions is acceptable in an authentic bowl of guasacaca, depending on your personal preference.
1 medium onion, chopped
2 garlic teeth, as they call cloves in these parts
1 green bell pepper
1 bunch cilantro leaves
1 bunch parsley leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon white or cider vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
Add the avocado, onion, garlic, bell pepper, cilantro and parsley to a food processor, and blend. When smooth, keep blending and drizzle in the oil, then the vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Taste, and adjust seasonings. Serve in a bowl alongside whatever else is on the menu.