Aji Panca: Main Features, Flavor, Uses, Paste, Substitutes

What is Aji Panca?

Aji Panca, Peruvian red pepper, is a popular variety of Capsicum Baccatum grown in Peru and is mostly used in Peruvian cooking. It’s a dark red, mild pepper with a fruity, smoky flavor. Mostly, you get to buy the dried version of this pepper or in paste form.

Main Facts In A Gist

  • Origin: Peru
  • Capsicum species: Baccatum
  • Heat Level: 1,000 – 1,500 SHU
  • Median heat: 1,250 SHU
  • Size: Approximately 3 to 5 inches long
  • Color: Turns to green to dark red on maturing
  • Flavor: Fruity, Sweet, Smoky
  • Pronunciation: ah-hee pahn-ka

Origin and History

After Aji Amarillo, Aji Panca is the most popular variety of pepper in Peru. This pepper has been in cultivation since ancient times in the coastal regions of Peru. The Panca pepper is also grown in some parts of Mexico and Central America, where the Spanish and Portuguese explorers introduced it in the 17th and 18th Centuries.

Today, Aji Panca can be easily found in most home gardens in Peru. Many traditional Peruvian dishes like popular anticucho, adobo, or pork stews utilize this pepper. Often, many Peruvian chefs use a mixture of Panca and Amarillo peppers, for they together produce a delicious blend of smoky, fruity, sweet, and spicy flavors.

Aji Panca Scoville

Aji Panca, also known as Aji Brown for its earthy tone when fully mature, is a mild pepper with heat ranging from 1,000 to 1,500 SHU on the Scoville Scale. In fact, it just produces nothing more than a mild simmer. Heat-wise, it’s in the same range as mild poblano pepper. While comparing it with Jalapeno, Aji brown is two to six times milder. Aji Amarillo, with heat ranging from 30,000 to 50,000 SHU, is twenty to fifty times hotter than Aji Panca chile.

Appearance and Flavor

Aji Panca chile peppers are conical with elongated lantern shape, and their size ranges from 7 to 12 centimeters in length and 2 to 5 centimeters in diameter. The pods have deep ridges all along the surface. The color of the pepper changes from green to dark red, almost earthy brown or mahogany when mature. Outwardly, the pods look waxy with gloss and smoothness. Underneath the wrinkled skin, the medium-thick flesh is aqueous, yellow-green, and crisp. The central cavity is filled with several flat, round, and cream-colored seeds.

Aji Panca flavor is sweet and smoky with subtle fruitiness reminiscent of blueberries and blackberries. Dried Aji Panca peppers acquire a chocolate-brown color and have a resin-like flavor with smokiness and hints of berry well integrated into a mild, lingering heat.

Overall, the tropical flavors found in this pepper are similar to the hotter scotch bonnet and habanero peppers. The smoky flavor is quite similar to the medium-heat chipotle pepper. Peruvians love this pepper for its complex, sweet, and smoky flavor with dark red hues.

How to Use Aji Panca?

Aji Panca is a staple ingredient in several traditional recipes in Peruvian cuisine. It’s often ground and tossed with a variety of foods before serving. This mild pepper is suitable for both raw and cooked dishes such as roasting, grilling, salads, or stir-frying. More than the fresh peppers, Aji Panca paste, dried whole chilies, chili powder, or dried flakes are more commonly used in cooking. Fresh peppers can be stuffed and roasted, sliced, and tossed into dishes like green salads, stir-fries, lime juice, or fruit salad. Dry smoky-flavored pepper is used for spicing up soups, stews, sauces, and casseroles. Ground dry chile is used as a dry rub for meat and fish or blended with oil and vinegar to make a paste. The Aji Panca paste is a popular condiment in Peru served along with cooked meat, fish, and vegetables. Often, this pepper is used to spice up cookies, chocolates, cocktails, or even mixed with avocado toast.

Buying and Storing Aji Panca Pepper

Unfortunately, fresh Aji Panca peppers are scarce in most places outside Peru. Mostly, you get to buy Aji Panca paste or in another form like whole dried chiles, dry ground chiles, or dry flakes, which you can easily purchase from any of the online vendors or groceries selling Latin spices near you. A pound of dry chile can cost you in the range of 5 to 7 US dollars. In case of unavailability, think of choosing an Aji Panca substitute; there are many other chilies with similar flavor profiles and spiciness.

Fresh peppers will keep up to one week when unwashed, stored whole, wrapped loosely in plastic, and preserved in the refrigerator. Dried peppers stay good for up to six months to one year if stored in an airtight container and a dry, cool, dark place with no moisture or dampness.

Aji Panca Paste

Aji Panca chile paste is a thick, smoky, fruity, and mildly spicy paste. Like Aji Amarillo paste, Panca chile paste is also a popular condiment accompanying several traditional Peruvian dishes. The paste is known for its mild heat, subtle smokiness, deep burgundy color, and rich berry-like flavor.

This Peruvian chile paste is often used in sauces and marinades for meat and fish. Panca pepper paste is popularly used for flavoring various traditional dishes like Antichuchos, a chicken-based street food favorite in Peru. The paste brings a smoky, mild heat to soups, stews, dressings, marinades, and more. Besides the online vendors, most groceries selling Latin spices have ready-to-use Aji Panca paste on sale.

Make the Aji Panca paste from fresh or dry chiles. To make the paste from fresh chiles, remove the seeds and process the peppers in the blender with the required amount of vegetable oil to make a thick paste. If you are making the paste from dried chiles, hydrate the chiles in lukewarm water for ten minutes before they are processed in the food blender. Besides the oil, you may also add a bit of vinegar to the paste if you enjoy the tangy flavor. Homemade chili paste can be stored in an airtight glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.

Aji Panca Substitutes

First of all, Aji Amarillo and other varieties of Aji Peppers are not a good alternative to Aji Panca. They not only differ in flavor but are also much hotter than this pepper. When you are choosing a substitute for Aji Panca, look for mild chilies in the range of 500 to 3,000 SHU and with smoky, fruity, and berry-like flavors. Here are some of the best alternatives to consider:

Pasilla peppers

Panca and Pasilla peppers have similar sweet and smoky flavors. Pasilla is also raisiny with hints of chocolate, which is very close to Panca pepper. As regards the heat, Pasilla is a mild pepper with heat ranging from 1,000 to 2,500 SHU. You can also use Pasilla paste in place of Aji Panca Paste. On the whole, Pasilla Pepper is the best substitute for Aji Panca, and they can be used interchangeably in most dishes in the same quantity.

Ancho powder/ ancho paste

The ancho pepper, actually the dried form of Poblano, has a similar flavor profile and heat level as Aji Panca. The ancho is smoky-sweet with subtle undertones of coffee beans that give an earthy feel. Ancho powder and paste are a good alternative to Aji Panca not only for the same flavor features but also for its easy availability everywhere.

Chipotle powder

Chipotle, the dried and smoked version of Jalapeno, is earthy and smoky like the Panca chile but not sweet. Chipotle is also hotter, with heat levels ranging from 2,500 to 8,000 SHU on the Scoville Scale. Despite the few differences, Chipotle is still a useful alternative to Panca chile in an emergency; also, Chipotle is easily available in most places.

Other Varieties of Aji Peppers

There are many different strains of Peruvian and South American aji peppers and here are the links to some of the most popular aji peppers: