By Joanna Marracelli
Utilizing the earth to prepare food over hot stones is one of the most primitive forms of cooking known to man. Archeologists depend on the discovery of these dug-out holes for evidence of human settlements. Today, they are still being used by many cultures around the world. For example, there are various riffs on the ‘umu’ in the South Pacific islands (known in Fiji as a lovo and an imu in Hawaii), the h?ngi in New Zealand and even the clam bake in New England. They all use the earth as a cooking vessel. There are different variations to each method but the general idea is the same. In general, these dishes are only reserved for special occasions because of their labor-intensive nature.South America has its own versions too. Pachamanca in Peru is so popular, that there are even different variations within the country (and heated arguments about which is the ‘correct’ way). Most of these areas are located within the central Peruvian Andes. They vary slightly, like in the Huallaga valley where the dish gets flavored with a locally grown herb, chincho. Ayacucho is said to have the most authentic form and in and around Huancayo, they use lamb as a central ingredient.
The word itself comes from the Quechua and translates to earth (pacha) and pot (manca). Like many things in Peru, it has been around since the time of the Inca empire and is steeped in ritual with sacred traditions. It goes beyond just a method of cooking here. It is used with reverence to pachamama (mother earth) and to give thanks to the bounty the earth offers. The ancient Incas used to eat it at the time of harvest in February and March as a way of showing their gratitude to nature. It remains an important part of Peruvian culture and is normally reserved for times of celebration including weddings and special birthdays.
To make the dish, first a large hole is dug. Next, volcanic stones are heated with fire until they are very hot. The meat (chicken, pork, sometimes lamb and guinea pig for special occasions), which is usually marinated, gets placed directly on the hot stones. Potatoes, sweet potatoes and sometimes yucca are arranged around the rocks and meat. More hot rocks are piled on. Special herbs like marmakilla, huacatay and paico are laid over the entire thing. On top of the herbs, whole habas (fava beans) and sometimes corn are added. Humitas and tamales are often included inside, too. Damp cloths are laid over the herbs and finally it’s all covered back up with the earth’s soil. It takes less than a half hour for everything to cook. To eat it, simply dig up the earth, take everything out and enjoy as is. The meat cooks up succulently between the combination of the hot stones and the steam. The vegetables are all perfectly tender. Southern Chile also has a rendition. Curanto en hoyo (translating to ‘curanto in the ground’) was originated on the island of Chiloé where it is still extensively prepared. Although slightly controversial, some believe that it was the influence of early Polynesian settlers who first brought the dish over. Like other earth-baked dishes, it utilizes native ingredients found on the island like nalca leaves, special varieties of potato, and fish. The dish is found all over the island of Chiloé but has also migrated to the mainland, in places like Puerto Montt and Valdivia, where it is most likely made in a pressure cooker, rather than the traditional earthen way. Curanto dates back over 6,000 years ago. On the north coast, near Ancud, archeologists have uncovered an ancient curanto en hoyo at the archeological site of Puente Quilo. The word curanto comes from the Mapuche’s kurantu, meaning ‘stony ground’. But the curanto had been prepared years before the Mapuche. The Chono were a hunter-gatherer, nomadic group and were the original indigenous people of the Chiloé archipelago. It is more widely held that the dish originated with the Chono, who are now extinct. The Chono’s last survivor died in 1875. There are slight variations of curanto found all over the island but all of them take advantage of Chiloé’s bountiful, fresh seafood. To prepare a curanto, first a hole is dug and a fire is built inside to heat large stones, similar to the pachamanca. When the stones are fiery hot, meat is placed on top of them. Usually chicken, chorizo sausage and ham is used. After the meat come the potatoes. The island of Chiloé is famous for its variety of potatoes and normally 3 different varieties are used in the curanto. Large, edible nalca leaves (known as Chilean rhubarb) which are ubiquitous in the area, are used to cover up the meat and potatoes. Shellfish is the next layer that is added. Traditionally a curanto contains cholgas (large mussels), almejas (clams), machas (razor clams) and picorocos (giant barnacles). More nalca leaves are used to make another layer and lastly, due to their fragility, milcao and chapaleles are added. The first is a kind of potato pancake made from grated potatoes and the latter is more of a Chilean dumpling made from both flour and potatoes. Both are molded into small discs and placed on top before being covered with a final layer of nalca leaves. The entire thing gets sealed up with wet sacks, usually some earth too with the grass facing inward, and then left to cook for about an hour. The leaves give the dish great flavor and help with steaming.
The resulting curanto gets uncovered and is served fresh, usually with some Chilean wine or chicha and pebre (a Chilean salsa-like condiment made from tomatoes, onions and cilantro). Like Pachamanca, it is often only assembled for large celebrations. The shellfish turns out beautifully. Potatoes and milcao are perfectly steamed. The meat remains juicy. The flavor from the nalca leaves and its ability to steam everything is flawless.
Any visit to these regions in South America is not complete without trying one of these famous dishes. Keep an eye out for versions in Ecuador, Brazil and Paraguay too. Although time-consuming and marginally labor-intensive, the end result is well worth the effort.