What’s the epitome of summer for a lot of Americans? It’s communing around a grill, with friends and family, waiting for a slab of meat to cook to juicy perfection. In Peru, people like to gather around heat and meat, too. Except the heat — and the meat — are buried in the ground. It’s called pachamanca, a traditional way of cooking that dates back to the Inca Empire. The pit cooking technique has evolved over time but remains an important part of the Peruvian cuisine and culture, especially in the central Peruvian Andes all year-round for family get-togethers and celebrations. Imagine a cornucopia of dozens of potatoes and corn ears and giant slabs of well-marinated meat, stacked carefully in layers. Pachamanca is that cornucopia turned upside-down and sealed for hours.
Pachamanca is the combination of two words in the Quechua language: pacha, for earth and manka for pot. To make one, “you basically make a pot in the earth.” Big volcanic rocks serve as heat source, so instead of grilling your meat, you grill the rocks over fire for roughly an hour. It has to be volcanic rocks that can support all the heat or else the rock will burst.
After the rocks are blazing hot, they become the bottom most layer of the pit. Then the first layer of food goes on: vegetables that need longer cooking times like potatoes, sweet potatoes and the Peruvian tubers yucca, oca and mashwa. The second layer is the meat — a whole lot of it. Around three to four types of meat are used. The most common ones are chicken, beef and pork. You can also use lamb and mutton.
Another layer of rocks — as hot as charcoal at this point — go on next. Then, it’s vegetables that need less cooking time, such as corn, fava beans in their pods, a little pot with cheese inside it and sweet Peruvian tamales. After the food is in there, it’s time to cover it all up. Banana and plantain leaves go first to give some flavoring, and then craft paper (think your brown lunch bag), polyester fabric and some cotton fabric too. Lastly, soil is put on top. Traditionally, the soil covers almost all of the fabric. A little cross and flowers go on top. Then, someone is designated to be the godfather and godmother for the pachamanca. It’s typically the person in charge and it’s their job to bring beer for everyone at the end.