Driving the hour to Mala is always worth all 60 minutes of our fluffy dog-child squirming on my lap. But back when you still needed a jacket to stand outside, Michael and Silvia and a slightly smaller Bastian invited us for something extra special. We were going to do a “pachamanca.”
Pachamanca is what I’d roughly describe as Incan barbecue. Essentially, it’s a very old way of turning the earth into an oven and subsequently feeding a ton of people. Under the guidance of Caesar, a local man who seemed a little more knowledgeable about this process than us city folk, and through the fearless work of the more adventurous attendees, I got to see the pachamanca unfold.
Everything started off with a keyhole-shaped, brick-lined pit: the rounded part contained a fire, and the adjoining part was an empty ditch. A sturdy metal rack sat over the fire, and a pile of stones baked on top.
After a round of beers or so, Caesar started relaxing some giant banana leaves by holding them briefly over the heat. The leaves got transferred back to a table that looked like the welcome spread on your first day in Valhalla. The food, everything from a giant hunk of cow to whole potatoes, was then neatly packed inside the leaves and tied up with string.
Once the stones were hot and the food was packaged, Michael and Caesar started step two. I don’t know how the Incans managed this step, but our chefs donned thick gloves to shift the stones onto some tiles to the side and to carefully remove the metal rack. Using a rake, Caesar shoveled the smoking ash out of the pit and into the connected ditch, and our earthen oven was ready!
Pachamanca seems to demand layers: hot rocks, banana leaves, meat, fresh cut herbs, banana leaves, hot rocks, veggies, herbs, banana leaves, etc. Don’t quote me on that order: I was a few beers in and wasn’t taking notes. But one way or another, our resident chefs got the whole grocery store and all the heated stones stacked into the pit.
Finally, the “lid” was constructed with a set of wooden boards, some extra bricks, a layer of tarps, and (of course) a pile of earth. I got pretty nervous for Caesar given his flip-flops as he danced around what was basically a gaping stove, but he steered clear and made sure the oven got a tight seal.
Per Peru’s amalgamated culture, a cross was mounted on top of the dirt hill and an offering was made to the god(s) of the mountain(s) to ensure the meal went well. About halfway through pouring the “offering” of a can of beer into the earth, little Bastian got curious enough to try taking a slug of it, thus dooming us to a few slightly undercooked potatoes. All in all though, the mini ceremony went well, and the pachamanca got cooking.
“Oh humans, for the love of… why would you bury so much food…”
Obviously the parents made sure everybody got a few photos with the babies after. Now, I know I’m biased, but while the other kiddos were cuties, I’m inclined to say my baby cooperated with the photoshoot the best… although she did still seem distressed about how much meat had just gone into the ground instead of into her mouth.
“But… but the foooood…”
I’d estimate we got everything in the “oven” by maybe 1 pm or so? Several hours later, at about gonna-die-of-hunger-and-curiosity o’clock, Caesar and Michael made the call: It was time. Our heroes grabbed the shovel and started digging.
A warm, distinctly Peruvian smell wafted out of the ground: hot earth and herbs, juices from the roasting meats, cooked potatoes and legumes, the greenness of the baked banana leaves… For a few minutes, I thought we were Incan. The lingerers who hadn’t initially ventured over took that cue to flock to the pit. Tongs materialized, pans were grabbed, and everything was unloaded in all of five minutes.
Everything that came out of our dirt oven was consumed in about a half hour or less. The flavors weren’t what I expected: I’d anticipated an intensely smoky taste. Instead, the flavors were surprisingly mild. Rather than smoky, I’d say things tasted vaguely earthy. I know this is coming from a past vegetarian’s perspective, but I’d argue that the real star of the show were the vegetables. The legumes (those giant pea-looking things), the corn, the onions, and especially the sweet potatoes… the time in the earth had pulled out their real personality. It was a little like finally trying the fresh version of a vegetable after only ever having tried it canned; it’s little wonder this method of cooking has stuck around so long, and no surprise that our hungry crowd inhaled it.
Pulga, for her part, even disappeared happily under the table with a huge chunk of sweet potato for the whole meal.
Of course, she was back at it the very next day.