Causa Is More Than Just a Pretty Potato Cake (It’s Got Layers!)

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We Peruvians are very finicky about how our Peruvian food arrives at the table. If a restaurant doesn’t finish its creations with their customary garnishes—a wedge of hard-boiled egg, a bed of lettuce, a disc of sweet potato, a carefully placed botija-and-only-botija olive—that business’s authenticity will surely come into question. Before long, news will spread throughout the community that the offending restaurant is “not for us.”

Peruvian diners will notice the smallest mistakes, and throwing shade is sort of a national pastime—something we call “rajar.” I had a young Peruvian chef in the US tell me once that Peruvians are his most difficult special customers. I certainly won’t deny this. (If the cook was careless in the plating, he or she could also be careless in selecting ingredients and maintaining hygiene, right?)

There is one dish that exemplifies this Peruvian culinary aesthetic: causa. It is a beloved specialty that originated in the cosmopolitan, urbane cuisine of Lima. Over the decades, it has spread throughout the country, picking up local ingredients and seasonings along the way. At its most basic, causa is a cold, savory potato layer cake. It is a summertime essential that can serve as an appetizer, entrée, snack, or hors d’oeuvre.

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Causa means “cause” in Spanish, and the dish supposedly received its name when it appeared on the streets of Lima as a fundraiser to support “the cause” of Peruvian independence from Spain in the 1800s. Others say the name comes from the Quechua word “kausay,” which means “sustenance” and was another word used for the potato, the lifeblood of pre-conquest Peruvians. Causa is also Peruvian slang for “buddy,” which reflects just how close many Peruvians feel to the dish.

The foundation of this dish is the potato “dough.” The spuds are boiled, pressed through a ricer, and mixed with lime juice, ají amarillo paste, salt, and other seasonings. Ají amarillo, a fairly large, golden-orange chile, is the backbone of Peruvian cuisine. It features in practically every dish and is what essentially makes Peruvian cuisine what it is. In addition to imparting a vibrant yellow color to everything it touches, it provides subtle heat and a bright, fruity flavor that cannot be substituted. The chiles are nearly impossible to find fresh in the United States, but jars of ají amarillo paste are available at many South American markets, as well as online, for only a few dollars. I really urge you to invest in a jar; it will come in handy.

With the causa foundation in place, you can begin to think about a filling. You will need mayonnaise. Any variety or recipe will work. The objective is to have something creamy to counter the acidity and spice of the potatoes (traditionally, mayonnaise-dressed canned tuna or poached chicken). Other fillings could include crab meat, poached shrimp, sliced hearts of palm, or artichoke hearts. To this you can add diced vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, or anything else you fancy. First-time causa makers should begin with a single layer of filling between the potato dough—the simple, tried-and-true approach. Those more experienced and/or adventurous can make multiple layers, or even alternate between different fillings.

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Tradition dictates that a slice of hardboiled egg, tomato, avocado, and a Peruvian botija olive must adorn the finished causa, as well as a generous and artfully administered smear or squirt of mayonnaise. That is a good place to start for inspiration, but I encourage you to let your culinary imagination run wild.

I like to substitute the traditional mayonnaise garnish with the mild Salsa Golf. This traditional cocktail sauce has variations throughout Latin America, but legend claims that it originated with an Argentine Nobel Laureate named Luis Federico Leloir in the 1920s. While dining at a golf club in the seaside town of Mar de Plata, he reportedly asked a waiter to bring him numerous condiments and began experimenting with their combination. He finally arrived at a simple concoction of ketchup and mayonnaise that became a hit in Argentina. Salsa Golf’s popularity quickly spread throughout the lower half of South America, taking on additional seasonings over time, and has become an indispensable part of Peruvian cuisine. Every Peruvian has his or her own secret ingredients, but mine includes a splash of pisco (brandy or vodka work here, too).

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The recipe below provides a pretty standard guideline for getting you started on your causa journey with a few of my own little flourishes. Once you feel comfortable with it, I give you full permission to toy around with the seasonings, the assembly, and the presentation. Change out the ají amarillo for your favorite chili, add herbs, use purple potatoes, add yuzu juice. Make individual causas, stuffed causa balls, or causa cupcakes. Spread the potato mixture on a plastic wrap–lined sushi mat, add your fillings, and roll into a pinwheel. I promise I won’t accuse you of any cultural transgression. After all, these are the types of things people are doing in Peru. Just remember that in order for it to be a causa, you need to follow these three rules:

1. The potato mixture needs to be cold, smooth, tart, spicy, and savory.

2. It needs to have a creamy filling, preferably dressed with mayonnaise.

3. It needs to look beautiful and ornate.

Approach this like you’d approach decorating a wedding cake: the more baroque, the better. I once brought an elaborate causa to a multicultural potluck, and the hosts actually served it along with the desserts because they thought it was a cake. If this happens to you, you have embodied the Peruvian culinary aesthetic.

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