From Farm to Earth Oven to Table: Experiencing Pachamanca in Peru

Posted by on December 28th, 2023

Peru’s cuisine has become world-famous over the last few years, home to four of the world’s top 50 restaurants including the coveted #1 spot. But amidst the myriad of iconic Peruvian dishes, one in particular stood out on my most recent trip there – the Pachamanca. Pachamanca is much more than just a culinary experience – it’s a ritual that allows us to express gratitude and connect to important Incan practices that began thousands of years ago and remain a fundamental part of modern-day Peruvian culture. 

The term “Pachamanca” originates from the native Quechua language, meaning “earth pot.” It’s a traditional Andean feast of meat and vegetables slow-cooked for hours in a hand-dug underground oven covered with hot volcanic rocks. The Incas believed that cooking the food underground – literally returning it to the earth – acted as an offering to Pachamama, the “Mother Earth”.

The meticulous process unfolds over several hours. A pit is dug into the ground and stones that have been heated over a fire are placed inside, lining the earth and forming the underground oven. The ingredients are arranged inside in the order of their required cooking times. First, hearty root vegetables like Andean potatoes, sweet potatoes, and cassava, followed by meats such as chicken, pork, lamb, and even alpaca or cuy (guinea pig). Banana leaves are placed on top to trap heat and create steam, and finally, the lightest ingredients like fava beans, corn, humitas (a steamed corn cake wrapped in a corn husk), and Andean cheese. The entire ensemble is marinated in a blend of herbs and spices, including ají (Peruvian peppers), cumin, garlic, salt, chincho, and my personal favorite – huacatay, a native Andean herb related to the marigold that tastes like a combination of spearmint, basil, and citrus. The entire oven is then covered with dirt to seal everything in.

On my third trip to the Sacred Valley of the Incas, I visited El Albergue, a boutique hotel in the town of Ollantaytambo, that offers an interactive pachamanca experience using organic vegetables from their own farm. Guests learn about the process of the pachamanca and can help with the preparations. As the meal slowly cooks underground, you can enjoy a beer or chicha morada, a sweet drink made from purple corn. You can also explore the on-site coffee roastery and distillery that produces Caña Alta, a spirit made from sugar cane, or stroll through the organic farm, where the farming terraces are the same ones that were used by the Incas for hundreds of years. 

In contemporary Peru, Pachamanca is still a cornerstone of local celebrations and family events, connecting its participants through the universal language of food and providing visitors with a delicious lens through which to learn about Peruvian culture. It’s not only a pragmatic way to provide hearty, flavorful, and comforting food for a large crowd, but it emphasizes the strong connection between food, nature, and people.

Your Destination Specialist at Vaya can include a traditional pachamanca as part of your private, custom-tailored Peru itinerary.

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