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How to Make Authentic Spit-Roasted Peruvian Chicken

Peruvian chicken, aka, or simply "charcoal chicken," has crisp, flavorful, smoke-kissed skin, juicy flesh and an herbaceous, positively addictive green sauce that accompanies it.
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Peruvian chicken, aka pollo a la brasa, or simply "charcoal chicken," has crisp, flavorful, smoke-kissed skin, juicy flesh and an herbaceous, positively addictive green sauce that accompanies it.

Peru has a Swiss national to thank for its most popular chicken dish, which has its own day on the Peruvian calendar (July 21). In the 1950s, Swiss expat-turned-chicken-farmer Roger Schuler was on the verge of losing everything. In desperation, he set up four tables in his farm home and advertised "all you can eat" spit-roasted chicken for only 5 soles (about $1.95) to local workers. Today, La Granja Azul (The Blue Farm) seats 450 patrons at its hacienda on the outskirts of Lima; chicken--still "all-you-can-eat"--is served with thick-cut fries and a green salad. And the price is 55 soles ($16.25).

When Peruvians emigrated to North America in the 1970s and 1980s, they brought this culinary treasure with them.

If you have eaten Peruvian chicken at a pollería in Lima, you have likely noticed differences between the indigenous and Anglicized versions. The former is usually a smaller, younger bird, and while not aggressively seasoned, it often features two ingredients that are not well-known in the U.S.: ají amarillo paste, a yellow chile pepper paste with a fruity taste and mild to medium spice; and huacatay (wah-kah-tay) paste, a distinctive-tasting herb compote also known as black mint. The chicken was traditionally spit-roasted over charcoal from the now-endangered algarrobo tree.

So without further ado, here is some hard-won advice for making mouthwatering and authentic Peruvian chicken in your own backyard:

  • Slather the wet rub on the outside of the bird, then gently lift the skin covering the breasts and thighs and use your fingers (or a wooden spoon) to season the flesh. If you have extra rub, put it in the cavity. If desired, let the chicken marinate in the rub for up to 8 hours, covered and refrigerated.

  • To prevent the bird from flopping on the spit, either truss or tuck the wings behind the back and tie the legs together with butcher's string before grilling.
  • No rotisserie? No worries. The chicken can be grilled indirectly on your grill or even beer can chicken-style.
  • To emulate Peruvian algarrobo charcoal, blend mesquite and mild-flavored smoking wood chips (such as apple or oak). At the most, you'll need 2 cups. Soak in water or beer for 1 hour, then drain before using.
  • SIGN UP for Steven Raichlen's UP IN SMOKE newsletter to learn more about barbecue!

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    Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and the host of Project Smoke on public television. His web site is BarbecueBible.com.