Meet Papa A La Huancaina, The Cheesy Potato Dish You Never Knew You Wanted

Anyone who’s read any of my food writing knows I have curiously strong opinions about potatoes. I’m honestly not sure how it happened, I just sort of woke up one day mid-potato rant. Anyway, one of my pet potato takes, which should be relatable for anyone who loves poutine and/or In N Out animal fries, is that there aren’t nearly enough dishes combining potatoes and cheese. Sure, you’ve got your “loaded baked potatoes,” but that usually involves waiting an hour and change for your garbage russet spud to finish cooking, when you just end up throwing out the 50% of that mealy turd that wasn’t touching any bacon, sour cream, or cheese anyway. How did russets become our most popular potato? They’re terrible. Sorry, sorry, this is a rave, not a rant.

My point is, I happened to be at a South American restaurant a few weeks back where I discovered a dish I’d never seen before: Papa a la Hauncaína. They’re named for a city in Peru — Huancayo — and while I’m sure we could have fun delving into the rich culinary history, you probably don’t want to hear that from a guy who just heard about them a few weeks ago. For our purposes, it’s only really necessary to know that the dish involves boiled yellow potatoes (which, unlike russets, actually taste pretty good on their own) slathered in a cheese sauce, garnished with olives and hard-boiled eggs.

It’s probably a little weird to gush over a cold starter/side dish, but potatoes, hot peppers, cheese sauce, hard boiled eggs, olives — these are all things that I love, that I’d never thought to combine. It was kind of a revelation. The best part is, it’s easy to make, and you can whip it together in about 20 minutes.

The Basics

Yellow potatoes. I used Yukon gold, which are fairly easy to find, though I’m sure you could substitute any potato on the smaller/rounder side.

Cheese. Queso fresco, which I get at Latin markets, though you could probably substitute farmers cheese, a mix of feta and cream cheese… something on the soft and crumbly side. But look, it’s cheese, you really can’t screw it up too badly.

Evaporated milk/whole milk.

Aji amarillo paste. This is a Peruvian yellow pepper paste I bought on Amazon, but you can probably substitute some chopped, seeded habanero, or better yet, a mix of chopped habanero and sautéed yellow/orange bell pepper (habanero is delicious and adds great flavor, but add too much and you’re going to burn your mouth off and ruin your anus).

Hard-boiled eggs and black olives to garnish.

All you do is take your potatoes (peel ’em if you want, but with a Yukon gold it doesn’t really matter), cut them into halves or quarters, and boil ’em in salty water for 10 minutes or so until they’re edible.

While those are boiling, take your cheese (about a half cup), your milk (about a half cup), and a tablespoon or two of your pepper paste (adjust based on how hot you want it), and put them in a blender. Some recipes use milk, other evaporated milk, others include vegetable oil, but basically you want it to be a cheese sauce texture.

Optional tweaks: There are lots of variations of recipes online, including soda crackers in the sauce, onions, garlic, lime… A few recipes called for fresh onion and garlic, but that was a little harsh for my tastes. As I’ve noted, I’m pretty far from an expert on this — and if some dilettante on the internet did a bad write-up on one of my favorite dishes I’d jump through the internet and stab them — but my favorite variation so far involved sautéing up about half an onion and four or five garlic cloves, browned in a pan with some olive oil until translucent, about 7-10 minutes just like you would any sauce, and dumping that in the blender. I used marcona almonds in place of crackers in one batch (which I’ve seen in certain gazpacho recipes), that was pretty good too.

Throw your potatoes on some lettuce leaves, cover with sauce, garnish with eggs and olives, and BOOM. You’re in cheesy potato heaven.