So you’ve plucked up the courage to try cuy, or sink your teeth into an alpaca steak. You might even call yourself a connoisseur of the food stalls at Cusco’s San Pedro Market.
From the world famous raw fish ceviche to the oriental fusion of lomo saltado, Peru boasts arguably the best cuisine in South America, though beyond its popular culinary tricks (and treats), Peruvian food, just like its culture, has maintained its mystique.
Adventurous eaters have unique opportunity to experience some of the world’s most unique dining experiences in Peru. Stepping out of Cusco’s city walls and stretching your imagination further than a mystery soup on a market Menu Del Dia will bring you to a pachamanca, an Incan dining ritual older than recorded history.
Taken from the Quechua words pacha meaning ‘earth’ and manka, meaning ‘pot’, a pachamanca is the Inca tradition of burying and baking foods found in the fields that surrounding a community. In reality, they’re not dissimilar from goods found on a modern barbecue, but are flavoured and served with a distinct Peruvian twist.
In order to try this dining experience ourselves, we ventured into the hills of the Sacred Valley, leaving Cusco to join a Quechua speaking local community who welcomed us to share the wealth of their knowledge.
A pachamanca is a labour of love, as the preparing of foods and construction of the earth oven can take up to two hours. It is an experience reserved for celebrations like weddings and is held only two or three times a year, so joining one is a very chance experience.
We were honoured to watch the process begin, as a freshly dug hole was lined with large, round piedras; stones that would gradually heat to soaring temperatures in order to cook our lunch.
More stones are placed over the smoking fire, supported by metal beams that enabled flames to be stoked and added to. A heat had warmed the clean, fresh air of the mountainous land and our stomachs had started to rumble.
Whilst we waited we welcomed the pace of life enjoyed in the Sacred Valley, exploring fields of medicinal plants normally found on supermarket shelves. As we asked the mountains for protection in a traditional prayer, a sudden flurry of activity brought us back to reality. It was nearly lunch, and time had come for the feast to enter its final stages of preparation.
Bowls of organic foods were produced; potatoes of the deepest purples and tropically hued plaintains. Comfort zones were pushed at the sight of two skinned cuy’s, nestled next to one another and ready for roasting. It was all the proof we needed that a pachamanca is not your average cook out; everything eaten here is locally sourced and as fresh as can be.
Spades were produced and the layer of stones supported by metal brackets were hastily removed. This was not a job for the faint hearted, and we could only watch as Santos, a skilled pachamanca leader, fearlessly shovelled fiery hot piedras.
First came beef, pork and potatoes that were buried and followed by poultry and cuy. A final layer- to be steamed in the heat- consisted of plaintains and habas, an Andean variety of the broad bean. Our feast was sealed by leaves and mud, leaving us in excitement for the final countdown.
Half an hour later the smell of earth and freshly cooked meat surrounded us. Smoke bellowed from the pachamanca as it was uncovered and bowls were re-filled with food carrying a distinct flavour, abundant in their goodness and satisfying and flavoursome in their taste.
Cooked to perfection in this underground oven, all that was left now to do was eat. We feasted on the goods of the lands around us and drank chicha, a fermented corn beer. We had been immersed from start to finish and it was a meal quite unlike any other dining experience. It made lunching at a restaurant seem tame.
The Incas believe that natural life forms are nurtured by Pachamama, the ancient goddess mother earth. Embodied by the mountains and manifested in the harvests of the people who shared their feast with us, pachamama had left us with a lasting feeling of fulfillment and thanks.
A pachamanca is more than just a meal. Its traditions, processes and symbolic nature let those lucky enough to participate into a glimpse of the life led by Incas. It is a must for anyone who puts food – and the stories behind it- high on their travelling priorities list.
Thanks to Asociación La Tierra de los Yachaqs to organize this day for us. This asociation is an organization that seeks to empower the community enterprises of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, through self-management of their own tourism initiatives.
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