You better start hoarding those volcanic rocks if your taste buds have a sudden hankering for a Peruvian meat dish because they are going to come in handy. There seems to be new competition in town for the All-American summer barbeque tradition. This for most Americans is the epitome of fair weather cook outs, where people mingle and hang out until a portion of meat is cooked and charred to the perfect consistency. However, like the ancient Inca tribes, the Peruvian barbeque consists of digging a hole into the ground, filling it with hot stones and meat and firing it in a process called pachamancha.
The word Pachamanca is actually two words in Quechua, the language of Peru. “Pacha” which stands for earth or underground and “manka” which means pot; his literally translates to putting or making a pot under the earth.
Pachamancha is one of the traditional ways of cooking during the days of the Inca Empire. While the cooking technique and the actual pit itself has evolved quite a bit over time, it still remains an important and impervious part of the cuisine and culture of Peru, especially in the Andes of central Peru for family celebrations throughout the year. Consider a cornucopia of corn cobs and potatoes and well marinated, succulent slabs of meat, are stacked in layers. Pachamanca is basically that cornucopia sealed, flipped upside-down and roasted on hot rocks for several hours.
Large volcanic rocks are used as the heat source and are heated by grilling for about an hour. The Peruvians specifically used volcanic rocks because of their ability to store high heat without splitting. Once they are red-hot, they are laid on the bottom of the pit. Vegetables which require longer time to cook like yams and potatoes are laid next, followed by various cuts of meat of chicken, beef, lamb, pork and game. Another hot layer of stones goes on top of this followed by softer vegetables like baby corn, fava beans, a small pot of spiced cheese and tamales.
The food is covered with banana leaves for added flavor, craft paper, poly fabrics and cottons and then packed down with soil. The place is marked with a small cross and flowers. Two people are designated the godmother and godfather of the pachamancha. These people are also in charge of making sure everyone has a beer in hand by the end of the task. The more traditional chica, a fermented drink made from sweet corn is also advisable. The underground oven bakes the meat and vegetables for about an hour or two, tenderizing them perfectly in the enclosed space.
When the sealing is cleared away, one can see that the marinate on the meat will have trickled down to season even the bottommost potatoes and the smoky aroma of the vaporized spices will have penetrated every serving of meat and vegetables in the it. Even the aroma of the steam that wafts out of the pit can arouse the pickiest of tastes and is indeed a feast fit not only for the entire family on Sunday but also for the Incas and Peruvian Gods of old.