Chad and I just returned from Peru on New Year's Day. We spent ten days touring beautiful ruins, travelling with insane cab drivers, and of course, eating everything in sight. We travelled with a group of friends and met up with some of their family. Luckily, the family likes to eat as much as we do, and the first adventure they had planned for us was a pachamanca.
A pachamanca is a meal traditional to the people of the central Andean mountains, and is usually prepared in an oven created from stones heated over a fire, topped with meat that is usually wrapped in banana leaves, and covered with grass and dirt and the hot stones to cook for about an hour and a half. In our case, the meal was prepared in permanent ovens similar in concept to the original stones, but made with cement. The word pachamanca actually means earthen oven.
We took a small bus to the restaurant called Mesa De Piedra, a drive that took about an hour from the Miraflores district in Lima, where we spent about half of our vacation. The drive there was fascinating and sad, as we saw Peruvians living in the most extreme poverty just before we arrived at the beautiful setting where we would spend our afternoon. Houses that were made of straw mats and sheets of corrugated metal were common sights, and the mountains surrounding us throughout the drive appeared to be huge mountains made of dust that hung in the air like smog. One has to wonder how easy it is to breathe when walking up and down the huge hills surrounding the little groups of shacks.
Mesa de Piedras (House of stone tables) only serves on Sundays. The feeling one gets when entering the compound of Mesa de Piedras is, first, one of relief ater the bumpy ride, and then one of awe and wonder. The setting, after all of that dust and dirt and poverty, is an impossibly beautiful little green valley. There are women selling honey and chiccha morada (a purple corn beverage) on the streets. The restaurant itself is completely outdoors and is surrounded by green grass and exotic flowering trees. We moved towards a huge granite slab surrounded by chairs, a few of which were already taken by friends of our Peruvian hosts, who had recommended this particular pachamanca and who had arrived armed with a bottle of Pisco for everyone to mix with sprite to make Chilcanos de Pisco.
We were served corn kernels deep-fried in pork fat to start. Like popcorn, but not puffy. Most of us ordered the pachamanca. The first dish that was presented was roast suckling pig, cooked on a spit and served with roasted yucca root. I do believe this is some of the best pork I have ever tasted. Next, the full pachamanca. A clay pot was presented for every two people, but each pot could have easily served four. The pots were filled with alpaca, the camelid that resides all over Peru and provides many a Peruvian with warmth in the form of sweaters during the rainy season; Haba beans (lima beans), tamales, choclo (Peruvian white corn), potatoes, sweet potatoes, chicken, and herbs and seasonings. The corn in Peru is amazing: we had it again and again and always it was the white corn with kernels three times as big as what we are accustomed to here in the US. The potatoes are delicious, too. They actually have their own earthy,sweet, creamy flavor which is much more concentrated than the flavor of our Idahoes. I am not a big fan of alpaca, as it is a little tough and gamey for my taste, but the peruvians do like their alpaca. We were served alpaca throughout the trip and in many different forms.
We finished the meal with picarones, little deep-fried squash doughnuts served with a syrup made from solidified molasses. This was by far my favorite part of the meal and one of my favorite Peruvian traditions.
Sadly, we had to leave the Pachamanca, the live traditional music, the costumed Peruvian dancers, and the beautiful setting to head back to Lima and continue on with the rest of our trip. More on that to come...