Spit-grilled chicken (pollo a la brasa) is popular all over Latin America. But it’s the Peruvian version that’s best known here in the United States, buoyed by the many restaurants that serve the bird in all its burnished, garlic-scented, drippings-slicked glory. Usually, they serve a spicy, creamy cilantro sauce alongside that is the perfect complement — and delicious in its own right.
Peruvian chicken is worth learning to make at home because few things beat the crackling skin of a home-roasted chicken, especially when it’s been marinated in garlic, chiles and plenty of spices.
To mimic the juiciness and char of a grill, in this version the chicken is split down the middle before roasting at high heat. You can ask your butcher to do this or go at it yourself with a pair of sturdy kitchen shears; it’s not at all hard. Or substitute a cut-up bird, removing the breasts from the oven a few minutes before the legs and thighs so the white meat doesn’t dry out.
Before roasting, you’ll need to marinate the chicken.
Even in Peru, the precise ingredients of the marinade are flexible, varying from region to region, cook to cook. In the mountainous parts of the country, pollo a la brasa is often a highly spiced bird imbued with garlic, chiles, cumin, paprika and either dark beer or soy sauce (an ingredient adopted from the country’s large Asian-Peruvian population). In Lima, you might see chickens seasoned more simply, with just a sprinkling of salt, to round out the smokiness of the grill.
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Peruvian-style chickens in the United States tend to follow the more assertively flavored route. In this recipe, a full six cloves of garlic ensure its pungent dominance, while chile pastes from both aji amarillo and aji panca chiles lend plenty of complex heat. If you can’t find the Peruvian chile pastes (which are available at Latin American groceries and online), don’t fret. As long as you add some kind of chile paste or sauce for heat and brightness, this dish will maintain its vibrant balance. Even sriracha or sambal will work in a pinch.
While the chicken roasts, whip up the spicy cilantro sauce to serve alongside. Like the marinade, there are dozens of versions of this creamy, rich mix. Some recipes call for peanuts to give the sauce body and heft, others rely on mayo. This one uses feta cheese for a salty bite. Then slather it liberally over the bird, because the combination of spiced, crispy chicken skin and the creamy herb sauce is magical — particularly when it’s been made by you.
And to Drink ...
One of my favorite combinations is roast chicken and a savory northern Rhône syrah. Actually, I like peppery northern Rhône reds, with their black-olive tang, to accompany almost any sort of chicken dish, and this spicy, bright Peruvian recipe will make an excellent pairing. You could try a good St.-Joseph or a Cornas, or you could splurge on a Côte-Rôtie or Hermitage, though those wines need a good 10 years of age to shine. As alternatives, some really good syrahs are coming from cooler-climate regions of California and Washington State, and from Australia as well. Want something else? Modest pinot noirs from Oregon or California will be delicious. You could try reds from Ribeira Sacra in Spain, or Chinon and Saumur-Champigny in the Loire Valley. Beaujolais would be a natural. ERIC ASIMOV