Pachamanca - The Inca Mountain Meal

We were travelling out of the city towards the mountains for lunch on a cold overcast winter day in Peru. I and a group of friends had been invited out to someone’s parents home. We took a bus out as far as it would go and then hiked up the side of a large dusty hill to the house. Turning around to look back down the hill, I found I couldn’t see where the brown horizon ended and the gray sky began. The hills around us were covered with small houses, which were separated only by worn-down footpaths. It was so steep in some parts it felt like you were defying gravity by staying on the path and not tumbling down to the bottom. Yet the paths were so easy to follow! By the time we had reached the house, we had worked up an appetite for something warm and hearty. We were not disappointed because the family was going to make us pachamanca.

Pachamanca, Quechua for earth (pacha) and oven (manca), is a traditional meal passed down by the Incas from the Andes mountains. Its name describes exactly what it is: food cooked in the earth by extremely hot rocks placed in the ground around it. To call it just a meal trivializes it. It’s an event, a ceremony even. It brings people together and is an homage to Mother Earth. The herb-seasoned meat is wrapped in plantain leaves, and cooked with multiple kinds of potatoes and corn layered on top. Everything is placed on top of rocks that have been heated over a fire for hours, covered in more plantain leaves, and finally more rocks and earth are placed back on top disguising the oven. You would never know your food was being cooked below the surface.

While the earth oven worked its magic, we all gathered in the house to warm up with a glass of chicha morada and good conversation. A couple hours later, we went outside to watch the men use shovels to unearth the food. As they started to pull the food out of the ground, I was handed a warm potato, I bit into it like an apple, tasting the soft warm flesh inside. I munched away happily on the potato, watching while they continued to dig up our lunch. The delicious aromas of the food wafted up and my body was filled with warmth from the potato and the heat from this earthen oven.

Once all the food was on platters and inside, sauces to enhance the food’s flavor were brought out, and we started passing out plates. The house was small and dark, door shut to keep cool air out and warm air in. Stools and cushions were placed on the floor for us to sit on. Chicken, pork, potatoes and corn were placed on my plate and the room was quiet except for the murmuring and grunting as people delighted in the plates given to them.

This is not a meal found in restaurants. This is a meal found in the mountains, on cold overcast winter days. It’s found in traditional Peruvian homes with Peruvians who have been making this dish for generations. And we were lucky enough to have it cooked for us!

I don’t like winter or cold weather, but the feeling of my cold fingers being warmed by a hot potato while I stand on a mountain surrounded by friends is one I will always remember.

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