I’d been hearing about grilled chicken with llajua (pronounced yak-wa), Bolivia’s ubiquitous tomato and chile grilling sauce, almost since the day a tall musician of Bolivian descent named Gabriel Berthin started dating my stepdaughter, Betsy. “Hot,” Gabriel said. “Real hot.” (Hmmm, salsa or stepdaughter?) Well, Gabriel is now my son-in-law, and llajua has become a staple of the Raichlen grilling repertoire. And it’s hard to imagine any sort of Bolivian grilled chicken, beef, pork, or lamb without this incendiary condiment to reinforce the fire.
Gabriel’s family uses bone-in chicken breasts on the theory that the bones add flavor and keep the chicken from drying out, and they grill them directly over charcoal. That’s what I’ve called for here; if you choose to use skinless, boneless breasts, shorten the grilling time.
Yield: Serves 4
For the llajua:
1 to 2 locoto or rocoto chiles, Scotch bonnets or jalapeño peppers
2 luscious, red ripe tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped (peeling is optional)
1 clove garlic coarsely chopped (optional)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice, or 1 tablespoon of each, or more to taste
Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro or flat-leaf parsley
For the chicken:
4 half chicken breasts, 8 to 10 ounces each if bone-in and with skin-on, about 6 ounces each if skinless and boneless
1½ teaspoons coarse salt (kosher or sea)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1. Make the llajua: Stem and cut the chile(s) in half lengthwise, then slice them crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces. (Gabriel’s family is very specific about this way of cutting the chile.) For a milder llajua, seed the chiles; for a spicier one, leave the seeds in. Place the tomatoes, garlic, and chile(s) in a food processor and puree to a coarse paste. Work in the olive oil and wine vinegar. Season the llajua with salt and black pepper to taste; the salsa should be highly seasoned. Work in the cilantro, running the processor in short bursts. Alternatively, you can puree the ingredients in a blender, adding the cilantro at the very end. You will have about 1 1/2 cups. The llajua can be made up to 2 hours ahead.
2. Prepare the chicken: Rinse the chicken breasts under cold running water, then blot them dry with paper towels. Generously season the chicken breasts on both sides with the salt, black pepper, and cumin. Drizzle the olive oil on both sides of the chicken breasts, rubbing the oil and spices onto the meat with your fingertips. Let the chicken breasts marinate in the refrigerator, covered, for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
3. Set up the grill for direct grilling and preheat it to high.
4. When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Arrange the chicken breasts on the hot grate at a diagonal to the bars. Grill the chicken breasts until golden brown and cooked through, 4 to 6 minutes per side for bone-in breasts, 3 to 5 minutes per side for boneless breasts. Give each breast a quarter turn on each side after 2 minutes to create a handsome crosshatch of grill marks.
5. Transfer the grilled chicken breasts to a platter or plates. Serve the chicken with the llajua spooned on top or on the side.
Where: Originated in the hills around La Paz; popular throughout Bolivia
What: Grilled cumin-scented chicken breasts served with Bolivian chile sauce
How: Direct grilling
Just the facts: The chile of choice for the Bolivian salsa is the locoto, a long, reddish pepper similar to Peru’s rocoto. Look for it in a Peruvian market, if you happen to live near one. Otherwise, use a Scotch bonnet chile for a really fiery salsa (the way Bolivians like it) or a jalapeño pepper for a milder salsa. Tradition calls for the chile pepper to be cut in half lengthwise; Bolivians swear it will have a different flavor if cut in half crosswise. For a hotter salsa, leave the seeds in.