Peruvian Party Food: How I Dug Into Pachamanca

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In the U.S., a big celebration usually means cake. In Peru, it's all about the pachamanca, which means "earth oven" and translates to a big hole dug in the ground that cooks up an entire meal.

You've seen the concept before: a New England clam bake, a Hawaiian luau, Mexican pit-cooked barbacoa—all big communal meals cooked in a pit. I've made several trips to Peru, and in all my meals there, pachamanca sticks with me the most. Months later I still find myself craving the smoke-perfumed meat that falls off the bone and potatoes with skins charred and insides so soft you could sip them with a straw.

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It's primordial comfort food, one of the country's most enduring pre-Cortez traditions, and it hasn't changed much over the years. You can still find pachamanca celebrations in backyards around the country, if you know where to look.

I found one an hour south of Lima. My Peruvian friend Arturo took me and some others in his car on a trip to the Lurin district. It's easy to forget that Lima is the world's second largest desert city (after Cairo, Egypt), but as the car left the city's nucleus, it became exceedingly clear. Desert stretched in every direction and the streets turned from pavement to dust.

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Arturo was shuttling us to his friends at Ichimay Wari, a crafts collective in a working-class enclave at the southern edge of the district. We arrived at the front door—shooing away stray dogs as we approached—and immediately began the pachamanca preparation. What was the occasion? In this case, it was just to show us Americans how a real party goes in Peru.

Pachamanca is a Quechua word (the language of the indigenous people of Peru). It literally means earth ("pacha") pot ("manca"). Though there's evidence the technique pre-dated written records, researchers can't pinpoint when it began. We do know it began before the Spanish conquest in 1532.

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The tradition is not limited to the minority Quechua culture in the Andes, though. It's gained widespread popularity throughout the country, and has even spread to neighboring Chile and Ecuador. It's easy to see why: pachamanca is a practical way to feed a crowd of 30 or more. It looks impressive, becomes a party all on its own, and most importantly, it's crazy-delicious.

For the Incas, pachamanca was irrevocably tied to ritual. Its preparation was a celebration of life, and the food was thought to be a source of fertility and rejuvenation. Cooking food underground pays homage to Pachamama, an Incan goddess not unlike Mother Earth; returning food to the earth's belly before eating it is a sign of respect.

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From what I could tell through the language barrier, Arturo's friends don't follow a precise recipe. Rather, one leader conducts the ceremony and coordinates three to five helpers. The leader is a pachamanca lifer—someone who's watched pachamancas since their childhood and committed the process to memory.

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The team assembles and disassembles the "earth oven," with precision, carefully fortifying its walls and sweeping the floor clear with a broom.

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Once dug out, the hole is lined with bricks to shape the actual oven. Rocks heated over a fire become the heat source, but not any rock will do. Only volcanic rocks can withstand such intense heat without cracking or popping.

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Once the rocks get shoveled in, the oven is ready to go.

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With the oven now set, the cooks add ingredients in order of required cooking time. Long-cooking ingredients like potatoes (sweet and otherwise) go in first.

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Then come the meats, which include any or all of the following: chicken, pork, beef, lamb, and goat, which have been marinated in a garlic, salt, and herb mixture (some combination of the local huacatay—a native herb with a minty taste—oregano, rosemary, thyme, and spearmint). Damp banana leaves are placed over the meats to build up steam and keep smoke and heat from escaping.

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Last comes a layer of fava beans still in their pods, corn on the cob (shucked), and the dessert: sweet tamales made with condensed milk, cinnamon, and raisins. The fava beans, corn, and tamales have been soaked in water to keep from scorching. As a final flourish, the cooks sprinkle on more herbs.

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As a final seal, construction insulation is placed over the herbs, then a tarp which is weighed down with shovel-fuls of dirt. The oven is now one giant steamer; the ingredients flavor each other while all getting suffused with gentle smoke.

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Two to four hours later—just how long depends on the meat—it's time to fetch the food. The leader carefully unearths each layer and arranges the food in bowls and platters with the aid of a helper. Meanwhile, another helper starts serving the crowd.

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And that's it—no more work required. All that's left is to dig in.

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The meal kicks off the celebration, but the party continues with live music and games. My favorite: put a guinea pig in the middle of cardboard boxes arranged circularly around it, and place bets on which box it runs into.