Making Peruvian-Style Rotisserie Chicken

I didn't know the South Americans had a cornered market on rotisserie chicken (polla a la brasa) until I had the pleasure of devouring some from a Bolivian restaurant here in Dayton.  Soon after, I became fixated on the idea of making my own.

Pollo a la brasa is no ordinary roasted or rotisserie chicken. I'm no stranger to the concept or the flavors in most American applications, which usually feature paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, salt and pepper. Maybe a little thyme and lemon. Of course it's delicious--a well-executed rotisserie chicken is hard not to love--but compared to pollo a la brasa, it's merely standard. There is something unique, edging on exotic, about the flavor of this South American dish. Was it cumin? Some kind of unusual ground chile? There was a depth of flavor that was difficult to pin down.

I was determined to find the secret.

The first part of my search revealed that the chicken served at the Bolivian restaurant is not really Bolivian. Do a Google search for "Bolivian Rotisserie Chicken" and you will find links to a few restaurants, but no recipes. My investigating soon revealed that the chicken is actually Peruvian. But seeing as how the two countries are neighbors, this isn't really all that unusual. I imagine it's sort of like the difference between St. Louis and Memphis barbecue. Each state might have their differences, but the principle is basically the same. (Bracing myself for some hate mail now).

At any rate, the search didn't exactly get easier with Peruvian Rotisserie Chicken in the Google box. Yes, there are a few recipes readily available, but none of them had ingredients that were distinctly regional, which seemed odd to me. And locating a Peruvian cook who was generous enough to post his or her special recipe online (or at the very least, a gringo enthusiast intent on getting an authentic copycat) was a dead end. Hell, there were even Peruvians on food forums who were looking for the recipe themselves. It was as if pollo a la brasa was some kind of poultry Holy Grail.

Then I stumbled across this site: Holy Pollo (appropriate, no?), and I heard the angels sing. Finally, the pollo a la brasa enthusiast Mecca I'd been searching for. Here they discussed all of the ingredients and cooking methods in great detail, and it turned out I had been right about the overly-simplistic copy cat recipes I had found. Although this recipe had mostly standard ingredients, a couple of them would require a trip to a Hispanic market:

Huacatay (pronounced "wah-kah-tie"): Also known as black mint paste or Peruvian black mint, this herb is indigenous to Peru and it is an essential part of most Andean cuisine. It is easily cultivated if you want to grow and puree your own, but if you want it here right away, you usually have to buy it as a paste in a jar. I scored some at a local Mexican market for a couple bucks, but you can also buy it online, and it's cheap.

Aji: These are Peruvian hot chiles, and there are few varieties. A decent Hispanic market will also sell them in pastes, but you can also buy them fresh and mince them yourself. Since the jar of Aji paste was available right next to the Huacatay, I went for it instead.

Achiote: Ground annato seeds. You can usually find these in the grocery store now in the Hispanic foods section, with the dried chiles, but if you can't manage to score this stuff, the closest approximation to it is paprika.

With these unusual ingredients in hand, along with the rosemary, garlic, beer, ginger, soy sauce, salt, and pepper the recipe called for, I set about concocting my pollo a la brasa.

Because the chicken I happened to have was a genetically freakish 7-pounds (for future reference, this recipe would probably work better with a 3-4 pound bird), I doubled the original marinade recipe. If you do this, do not double the beer in the recipe. My marinade was very soupy when it should have been more of a paste. In fact, just add splashes of beer until the ingredients are the right consistency.

Still, I dressed it up, got as much of it under the skin as I could, and let the bird bathe for 5 hours. Then it was time for the grill. Because we didn't have a rotisserie setup, we utilized the beer can method (although we didn't put the beer can in it, we just used the stand to make the bird upright) and set it to cook over indirect coals. 90 minutes was plenty of time to achieve poultry nirvana.

It came off looking lacquered and lucious. Pollo a la brasa was mine!

Well, mostly. The chicken was delicious. Six of us devoured it down to bare bones within 30 minutes, and there were no complaints. We all thought it was a very close approximation to our favorite local joint.

But it still wasn't exactly what I was after. While I was heartened to taste many of the flavors of the pollo a la brasa I'd eaten before, they weren't quite intense enough. These are the things I'm going to try next time:

1. Make the marinade thicker and more like a paste (less beer)
2. Use fresh aji or more aji paste
3. Use fresh ginger (I used ginger paste in a tube, and I don't think the flavor came through enough)
4. More cumin and huacatay

I think, however, for the first attempt, it was a success, and it was good to know that I had entered the ballpark. But like the secretive Andeans, I will have to use this recipe as a foundation and build upon it until I have a pollo a la brasa recipe that is all my own.

If you try the Holy Pollo recipe, serve it alongside some black beans, rice, and some tostones. You won't be sorry. Here are the basic ingredients for the marinade. Visit the site for more details on cooking methods and substitutions.

  • 1 (2 1/2 to 3 1/2 pound) broiler-fryer chicken
  • 1 tablespoon rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon huacatay
  • 1/2 tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon Ground Achiote(Annato) (substitute Paprika)
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon ginger paste
  • 1 tablespoon aji (either fresh or minced fresh)
  • 2 tablespoons garlic paste
  • 1/4 cup beer (any ale will do)
  • splash vinegar
  • salt and pepper
Puree ingredients until you have a paste. Thin with additional beer if necessary. Rub chicken all over with th marinade, including under the skin of the breast as the flavoring does not penetrate the skin. Place in a covered bowl or large freezer bag and allow to marinate for 6 hours.