The Incans managed some pretty incredible feats in their heyday. Advanced mathematics, astronomy, roadways that crossed a continent, and, oh yeah, Machu Picchu. But the food-minded among us should thank them for one thing above all: the pachamanca.
From the native Quechua language, pachamanca translates to "earth" (pacha) and "pot" (manca); for the rest of us, let's translate it as "awesome underground barbecue." Essentially, Peruvians dig a hole in the ground, then layer fire-heated rocks in it to fashion an earthen oven. Banana leaf–wrapped parcels filled with meats, corn, potatoes and more bake inside. (Other versions layer meats and vegetables directly in the oven, but these little packets keep things much tidier.)
As with the best barbecue, each one emerges smoky and falling-apart tender. And as with many barbecues, the pachamanca is a community event—either a celebratory meal, or sometimes is itself cause for celebration.
Proper technique is key. Rely Alencastre, executive chef at JW Marriott El Convento Cusco, got his hands dirty to show us the ways of the pachamanca.
Start with banana or plantain leaves, which will hold your meal tightly while allowing the flavorful smoke to permeate...
…And fill them with everything your heart desires. In Peru, that tends to mean potatoes, corn, perhaps lima beans and meat like chicken, pork or alpaca.
Peru is home to more than 300 varieties of potato, a fact I was probably told six times before I'd finished my first meal in there. I'll admit I found myself wondering, how different can potatoes really be? But the differences are dramatic: some sweeter, some earthier, some almost crumbly in texture, others more buttery. So the more potatoes in your parcel, the better.
Meanwhile, volcanic rocks, logically well-equipped to handle high temperatures, have been heating over a fire.
Those hot stones are ever-so-carefully arranged into the bottom of the earthen "oven," and then piled with armfuls of native herbs, whose scent fills the air immediately.
Then all those meat- and potato-filled parcels are layered on.
More banana leaves on top, then a layer of thick paper, followed by lots and lots of dirt to seal everything inside.
Incan culture is heavy on ritual and symbolism, with utmost respect to their gods. Whoever is manning the pachamanca gives a ceremonial toast of chicha, Peru's beer-like fermented corn drink, by pouring it over the top.
An hour or so later, it’s time to bring out the shovels. The pit is unsealed and lunch is served.
And here's the money shot. While the pachamanca's own distinct flavor was good enough for me, Peruvian cooking can always layer on a few more flavors, with sauces of varying spiciness; for this lunch, we also passed around pico de gallo and the irresistible huancaína, a popular creamy cheese sauce. (I really do mean irresistible. I brought home jarfuls. It is indeed worth the plane ride to Peru just for this cheesy sauce.)
The meats are tender enough to fall apart at the poke of a fork. Along with the potatoes and corn, they're intensely flavored by the herbal smoke, echoing the smells of the pachamanca. It's a meal that's almost impossible to replicate—unless, of course, you witness a pachamanca yourself.