Peruvian salsa criolla is a punchy, citrusy and spicy relish of sliced red onions and ají amarillo (chillies), flavoured with fresh coriander leaves and lime juice. It makes the perfect accompaniment in any meal, Latin American or otherwise.
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
What is Salsa Criolla?
It’s not really the wet salsa of chopped onions and peppers that many of us outside of Latin America are familiar with or that bring up pictures of tortilla chips.
Let’s take a look at the name first:
- salsa = sauce in Spanish, as you know
- criolla = Creole
- pronunciation = cree – yo – ya
So Salsa Criolla means Creole Salsa. It is also called Sarza Criolla in Peru.
There are in fact, different types of salsa criolla all over South America, made up of different chilli peppers, aromatics, herbs and citrus juice. Some have chopped up ingredients, and some, like our Peruvian salsa criolla, have thinly sliced onions and chillies.
Peruvian Salsa Criolla Recipe
The Peruvian version of salsa criolla is very, very easy to make, requiring only a few ingredients:
- ají amarillo (chillies – aji means chilli pepper)
- red onions
- lime juice
- fresh coriander leaves (cilantro) – culantro is also a local favourite
- salt and black pepper
The chillies and red onions are cut a la pluma (like feathers), forming a bowl of red and orange strips with green specks from the herb.
Traditionally, this relish would be fairly spicy, given the yellow Peruvian chillies used. However, you can dial that heat right down by using a combination of mild chillies and bell peppers.
Be sure to slice them thinly though, in keeping with the way this spicy relish is served in Peru.
When you’ve mixed all the ingredients in a bowl, you want to leave the salsa to cure slightly in your refrigerator. This will soften the chillies and onions as the lime juice “cooks” the vegetables, as you would when making ceviche.
This, literally translated, means yellow chilli, and is probably Peru’s favourite chilli. This would be the traditional pepper used in the Peruvian salsa criolla.
Despite its name, aji amarillo ripens to a deep, bright orange colour. It’s medium hot, scoring about 30 000 – 50 000 units on the Scoville scale.
You can read more about aji amarillo here.
I grow these chillies every year because I love them and I love Peruvian food. For those of you who don’t have access to them, I suggest you use a combination of thinly sliced orange sweet peppers (in keeping with the spirit of the dish) and chillies of your choice.
To capture that heat and fruitiness of aji amarillo, the combination of sweet orange peppers and habaneros will give you the closest approximation of the real thing. Chop the habaneros up finely but slice the sweet peppers. Be sure to use gloves to handle spicy chillies.
Along with the ajis, this is another crucial component of today’s Peruvian salsa. Red onions are sweet and perfect in any salsa and salads, complementing the sour citrus and spicy chillies.
The balance of onions to chillies is a matter of taste, I like a fairly 50/50 split, but this is something you can decide for yourself.
If you want the onions less pungent and milder, soak them in a bowl of cold water for at least an hour. But as an onion lover, I think this such a waste. The onions will be soaking in the dressing of lime juice, and the longer you leave them, the milder and sweeter they become.
While the chillies and onions make up the body, the lime juice adds flavour and zing to the salsa. Limes are an essential ingredient in many cuisines around the world, and certainly in South America.
Use any Persian or key lime types.
The oil used in salsa criolla wants to be mild in flavour, as you don’t want it to mess with the chillies, onions and citrus. The oil is only a vehicle in this recipe.
So stay away from that extra virgin olive oil and reach for a simple vegetable oil that is not going to impart any character to our salsa.
Light olive oil will work, as it’ll add only the mildest flavour, and as you’ll see, it’s what I’m using.
Fresh Coriander Leaves (Cilantro)
The herb used in the Peruvian salsa criolla is fresh coriander or culantro, if you can get it. If you are not a fan of either, substitute it with fresh parsley, and it’ll be just as delicious.
How to Serve Peruvian Salsa Criolla?
Also called sarza criolla in Peru, it is a punchy relish that goes so well with just about anything, whether Peruvian dishes or otherwise. You can serve it as a side dish as a condiment.
So besides that, you can use this Peruvian salsa criolla:
- as a sandwich filler, like in butifarra, that Peruvian sandwich filled with jamón del país, a local ham.
- or topping, whether that’s with tacos, canapés or just on fried eggs.
- as a condiment with rice or noodles – I do this very often, as I don’t do meals without some sort of spice.
- with grilled (or barbecued) meat (beef, lamb pork), seafood, tofu and vegetables.
- tossed into a bowl of salad for added punch. Salsa criolla is never eaten as a salad on its own.
- it is so good with tamales too.
So you see, let your imagination go free.
How long will Salsa Criolla Keep?
For starters, as mentioned above, you definitely want to make it a little earlier than when you intend to serve it. Peruvian salsa criolla is best when the chillies and onions have had time to cure a little in the lime juice and oil dressing.
Any leftover salsa can be kept in the fridge in an airtight container for up to 5 days. The flavours will mellow out as the salsa starts to ferment slightly and take on a sweeter nature.
Any longer than 5 days and your salsa criolla will start fermenting too much and won’t be as delicious as in the first couple of days. I like it best on the second day.
And now, shall we get our aprons on?
If you enjoy the recipe, drop me a comment and let me know. And if you are feeling like a star, don’t forget that 5-star rating!
If you make this recipe, post it on Instagram and tag me @azlinbloor.
More Latin American Recipes
Peruvian Salsa Criolla (with Ají Amarillo)
- 1 Knife
- 1 Chopping board
- 1 spoon
- 1 small bowl for the dressing
- 1 medium-sized bowl for the salsa
- 4 aji amarillo or a combination of chillies and sweet peppers (see suggestions in the post above)
- 1 medium red onion pre peeled weight about 120g (4.2 oz)
- 1 sprig fresh coriander leaves (cilantro) or use culantro, if you want
- freshly ground black pepper optional
- 6 Tbsp fresh lime juice (never bottled) about 2-3 limes, depending on size and juiciness
- 2 Tbsp light olive oil (or any light flavoured or bland oil)
- 1 pinch salt
- Pour the oil in the small bowl, and add the salt.
- Squeeze the lime juice over and whisk the dressing with a fork, to mix. Set aside.
Prep the chillies and onion
- Put some kitchen or disposable gloves on and cut the stems off the aji amarillo, then halve them lengthwise. Using a teaspoon, scrape remove the seeds and all the bits in the chillies.
- Slice them thinly, lengthwise. Place in the bowl.
- Peel and halve the red onion. Then slice thinly. Add to the bowl.
- Finely chop the coriander leaves including the stems and add to the bowl.
- Pour the dressing all over the salsa and toss gently to mix.
- Taste and add more salt if necessary. Finish off with some freshly ground black pepper, if you like.
- Cover with clingfilm and leave to rest for 30 minutes before serving.For a garden party/barbecue, you can just leave it out with all the other foods on your table.Serve cold or at room temperature.
4 thoughts on “Peruvian Salsa Criolla (with Ají Amarillo)”
I picked up some of these chilies last week and wow, what a fab recipe! Thanks Lin, went down very well with the spice loving guests.
I got some of these chilis at the local market over the weekend and found your recipe online. Made some yesterday and what a treat it was. We do love our heat so didn’t skimp on that! Hubby’s asked for it again! Thank you!
Awesome, seconds always make me happy! I simply adore salsa criolla!