“Don’t spoil it with cutlery. This is party pork!” That’s the advice from a beaming buddy of mine about adobo de chanco — slow braised pork shoulder, served with ladles of bread-dunking, fiery sauce, and buttered corn. “This Peruvian pork is for pure pleasure, please, fingers only.”
This is very much a case where the name of the dish just doesn’t do it anything like the justice it deserves. You could translate adobo de chanco to spicily marinated pork. But that gets nowhere near telling the whole, delicious story of this Peruvian pork classic.
In Peru, they have places called picanterias. These are eateries which specialize in serving food that’s ‘picante’ — the Spanish word for spicy. In picanterias, being spicy means being chili-powered hot. With a burn around the cayenne mark, the most popular heat-source comes from fresh, hot peppers known as aji amarillo, ‘yellow chili’. In its sun-dried form, this culinary mainstay is aji mirasol — a rather lovely name for a chili that’s been sun-gazing.
Now, I’ve never been to a picanteria, but adobo de chanco reveals a lot about why I’d really like to. Its big, robust, honest-to-goodness flavors sing a song about the happy, primal wonders of relishing simple, fine food among seriously good company.
This is a meal that combines gusto with bravura. It’s an accomplished ambassador for the delights of straightforward ingredients that are superbly showcased by uncomplicated cooking. And since the pork is the main event here, it’s definitely worth looking at the reasons why.
Shoulder, neck, Boston butt: now there’s a grand piece of pork — no matter what you call it
For adobo de chanco, what you’re looking for is the upper cut from a pork shoulder. Although this topmost section sometimes gets rather vaguely called shoulder or neck, a much more specific moniker is Boston butt. This is the cut that fans of pulled pork are probably most attracted to.
Shot through with marbling fat — which accounts for its big-hitting flavors — this grand piece of pork is rightly raved about for being at its gorgeously tender best when cooked fairly low-and-slow.
To cater for four good appetites, you’ll need a rindless, boneless, butt of around three-and-a-half pounds. This then gets cut into chunky sections that are each easily two-inches square — way beyond bite-size.
Here’s the beauty of prepping the pork like this. First off, those generous chunks suit being given some golden color in some hot pork fat / lard. That gets them ready for being slowly braised in a marinade-based adobo sauce that’s built around generous amounts of chili, garlic, red onions, oregano, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, and an enlivening, flavor-focusing amount of red wine vinegar.
The adobo for the chanco
To be authentic, the principal liquid in the adobo should be a type of Peruvian beer called chicha de jora. Typically corn-based, it’s a fermented, sweetened brew that’s in a style that was much favored by the Incas — but has a history that goes back even further than those empire-building folk. It’s reckoned that this sort of beer has been brewed in the Andean region for 7 000 years.
Even though it’s been around for a while — and is still widely enjoyed in many parts of South America — it’s unlikely you’ll find any in other parts of the world. So, in our recipe I’ve gone for a substitute — a dry-ish, fruity kombucha, that I combined with more chicha-featuring cinnamon and cloves.
Pepper-power in Peru
Over thousands of years, the aji amarillo has become woven into the fabric of Peru’s cuisine. It’s such an integral part of the country’s cooking that it’s often tagged as Peruvian pepper. And in a land of such chili-loving people, it’s hardly surprising that Peru is home to many chilies spanning a big range of flavors and potency.
One that particularly interested me is a chili with another long, long history behind it — the rocoto. What struck me as being unusual about this variety is that it grows at high altitudes — in the Andes, no less. Which means it doesn’t need the warm-to-hot sunny climes I’d always thought were essential for chilies to flourish. And although it looks a bit like a small-ish, red bell pepper, it can throw a habanero-style punch.
Rocotos are apparently mega popular in Peru. But, like other native varieties, they’re difficult to find elsewhere.
So, continuing in the spirit of needs-must substitutes, I used dried arbol chilies in the marinading mix and added fresh, thickly-sliced red cayennes to the sauce.
If you’re a fan of higher heat, then a few habaneros or scotch bonnets would be just dandy — especially since the adobo sauce has enough fruity sweetness to balance their intensity.
Adobo de Chanco
For the pork
- 3 ½ pounds boneless, rindless Boston butt cut into chunks about 2 inches square.
- 2 heaped tablespoons clarified pork fat or lard
For the pork’s marinade
- 8 dried chile de arbol peppers soaked for 10 minutes in 4 tablespoons boiling water. Keep the water — it’s going into the marinade mix.
- 2 red onions medium-sized
- 8 cloves garlic
- 3 heaped teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 heaped teaspoons dried oregano
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground black pepper
- 4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
For the adobo sauce
- 6 fresh red cayenne peppers cut into ½-inch thick slices, seeds and all
- 4 red onions medium-sized, peeled, halved and cut into 1/3-inch half-moons
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and very thinly sliced
- 4 bay leaves
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground cloves
- 4 cups unsweetened kombucha the type I used was the one I like to drink half-and-half with soda water and ice
- 2 heaped teaspoons brown sugar
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground sea salt
- 1 tablespoon pork fat / lard
- All the excess marinade from the pork
For the pork’s marinade
- Add all the marinade’s ingredients to your food processor and blitz to a smooth paste. That’ll probably take a few minutes because you’re aiming to create a smooth paste. Don’t forget to add the water that the dried chilies were soaked in.
Marinating the pork — 30 minutes is fine
- Pour the marinade into a mixing bowl that will amply hold all the pork. Add the pork and use your fingers to give it a good coating of the marinade. Set aside for 30 minutes — it’s a good time now to prep the ingredients for the adobo sauce.
- After that 30 minutes’ marinating, remove the pork from the bowl and use your fingers to wipe off — into the bowl — as much of the marinade as you easily can. Don’t fuss too much over this, just wipe off the excess — and take to care to keep the marinade in the bowl. That’s really important because the excess is going into your adobo sauce.
Cooking the pork — a fast-fry first, then a slow braising
- This begins by giving batches of the marinated pork some fast, browning heat in a big skillet. The pork’s then going to braise in the adobo sauce on your stovetop at a slow simmer for 2 hours.
- So, set a big, deep-sided skillet on a high heat, and add the pork fat / lard. As soon as the pork fat / lard just barely starts to smoke, add your first batch of pork in an evenly spaced single layer, then drop the heat to medium-high. (I used a 12-inch skillet, and gave the pork it’s pale gold coloring in three batches.)
- On that medium-high heat, you want to fry the squarish pieces of pork for about 90 seconds on each side — so that they pick up some good-looking, pale gold color all over. Once that happens, use a slotted spoon to remove the pork and set it aside on a plate. Try to leave as much of the hot fat / lard as you can in the skillet. Repeat the fast-fry process for the next batches of pork. Good. Time now for some slow, simmering braising.
- For that braising, choose a heavy-based, well-lidded pan that’ll be big enough to hold all the pork and all the sauce’s ingredients. I used a big, cast-iron Dutch oven for this.
- Set your big pot on a medium heat, and add a level tablespoon pork fat / lard. Let the pan heat for a minute or so, then add the sliced cayennes, red onion, garlic and salt. Give the lot a good stir, then drop to heat to low-medium. You now want to gently fry the mix with some watchful stirs so that the chilies, onion, and garlic soften — but don’t start to take on any browning color. That’ll take about 7 minutes on that low-medium heat.
- Once the chilies, onion, and garlic have softened, stir in all the sauce’s remaining ingredients, and raise the heat to high. When the sauce just begins to bubble, add the pork and all the flavorful juices from the plate it was sitting on. Give the big pot a good stir, drop the heat to low, and put on the lid. Nearly done.
- You now want to keep an eye of the pot so that it cooks at a gentle simmer for 2 hours — and I mean a gentle simmer. So, you might have to occasionally adjust the heat to keep things just barely bubbling.
- After the pot’s been slowly cooking for 1½ hours, test the sauce for saltiness, and adjust according to your taste.
- Then, after 2 hours’ simmering, that’s it. Your adobo de chanco is ready to serve — the pork will be so tender that you’ll be able to ever-so-easily pull those chunks apart with your fingers.