As most of you know, my wifey hails from Peru. Although born in China from Chinese parents, she grew up in Lima, Peru. I love the expression of Latinos when she launches into perfect Spanish. Sometimes, I like to make fun of her accent (her favorite color is a food – “jello”). She has distinctly Peruvian tastes as she loves lemon and red onion with almost any and every dish. Her family (read: cousin Tanya) taught me how to cook Pachamanca.
Pachamanca is a traditional Peruvian method of cooking. The word derives from Quechua (the traditional indigenous language of the Incas) meaning pacha “earth”, manka “pot.” The reason why Pachamanca is the ideal is that we like to host parties of more than 30 people. If you are going to cook for that many folks, someone is going to be either slaving away in the kitchen or in front of the grill for several hours. With Pachamanca, you can feed an army all at the same time – all of the food is ready at the same time and it is all hot. Furthermore, with the help of wifey’s cousin, Tanya, we’ve pretty much perfected making the food come out juicy and tender.
There are many cultures that use earth ovesn to cook food. The Hawaiians have a Luau pig pit, Moroccans have a tandir for lamb and of course North Americans have a clambake. The only difference that I see between these other earth ovens is that in most of them, you start a fire in a pit and place the food on the embers or hot coals that remain. In a pachamanca, you use heated stones.
FOUR STEPS TO COOKING PACHAMANCA
1. Dig a Hole
Okay, so this is not for you city slickers reading this. You will need a yard and you will have to dig a hole. The hole can be any size you want, but we decided on a hole about 3 feet in diameter and 3 feet deep.
This was the hardest part of the pachamanca process. The soil where we decided to dig this hole was filled with rocks of all shapes and sizes. Save the rocks and sand in buckets as you will need them later (see below).
2. Heat the Rocks
You will need to heat the rocks that will do the actual cooking. I got stones from a nearby river. The kinds of stones you are looking for are round and hard. You do not want sharp rocks as they do not radiate heat efficiently and may rip the foil and poke through to your food.
Ideally, you want the temperature of the rocks to be as hot as you can get them. I was able to get the rocks as hot as 800 degrees, but 600 degrees is a good target.
I first used a Weber barbeque to heat the rocks, but this was not ideal. In addition to being too small to host all of the rocks needed to heat, once the rocks were loaded, it is impossible to feed the fire more to increase the temperature of the rocks.
So ideally, you need an area to heat the rocks that allows you to feed the fire with more wood. I came up with some spare cinder blocks from my raised bed garden build and came up with this snazzy trailer park trashy rock grill you can see to the right.
You will need time for the rocks to get hot. I start the fire about three hours before cooking the pachamanca.
3. Place the Rocks and the Food
In a traditional pachamanca, you line the hole with banana leaves. I have no idea why this step is necessary. I suspect that the banana leaves create moisture when the hot rocks touch them, creating steam inside the hole. You can find banana leaves in a latin food grocer. You will need at least two packages, depending on the size of your hole. You can see in the photo to the left, that we also lined the bottom of the hole with burlap. In subsequent pachamancas, we left out this burlap and instead lined the entire hole with banana leaves.
After the banana leaves, one layer of hot rocks goes into the hole. We have found the best way to move 800 degree rocks from the grill to the pit is using a hoe to drop the hot rocks onto a waiting shovel.
Then the food goes on the hot rocks. In traditional times, the indigineous Peruvians placed meat directly onto the hot stones. We have found that this tends to overcook the meat and makes it dry, tough and is NOT good eats. Instead, now, we place the food in aluminum buffet trays and cover with a few layers of heavy duty aluminum foil. This causes the food to steam and preserve most of the moisture. You can throw in some potatoes, sweet potatoes, and unhusked ears of corn directly into the pit also.
On top of each tray of food goes more hot rocks. This will cook the food from below as well as above. Having rocks on top will also create a convection current inside the pit.
Then you cover the pit up. We used a piece of burlap that was soaked in water, then covered that with a linen sheet (read: old curtain) and then on top of that a plastic sheet (read: cut up garbage bag). On the edge of the plastic we placed rocks from the original hole and then covered the middle of the plastic with sand from the hole. In subsequent pachamancas we skipped the sand step and did not notice any appreciable difference. I suspect that if your rocks are cooler, you would want the additional insulation that sand would provide.
Traditionally, indigenous Peruvians make a cross out of twigs and place this in the middle of the pachamanca. Then they toast the pachamanca gods and pour alcohol onto the cross.
The length of time of a pachamanca cook, depends on the amount of the food and the heat of your rocks. It is always better to overestimate rather than underestimate (which contributes to the sterotype that pachamanca food is overcooked and tough). If you underestimate and your food is raw, you’re stuck and you may need to finish the cook in the oven. This is another benefit of cooking in buffet trays. It is MUCH more forgiving to cook using steam than direct heat on food cooking.
We have found that a single tray of food would take a minimum of 1.5 hours with 600 degree rocks. Two trays about two hours. We would add or subtract from that depending on the temperature of the rocks.
4. Uncover the Pit and Eat
This is the best part. So yummy. My favorite is pork belly. The fat renders beautifully and you’re left with tender porky goodness. We’ve cooked four pachamancas in the last year. Each one we had at least 30 people show up for it.
I also used pallets that came from the delivery of my cinder blocks for my raised bed garden to build a cover so that son Oliver won’t fall in (especially during the winter when snow covers the pit).
Gratuitous Pachamanca Food Porn
No post about Pachamanca would be complete without some photos of the food that we pulled out of our Peruvian Earth Oven. Here they are
Folks like it so much that I’m considering doing one about once a month and charging admission. This way local folks from my town can experience pachamanca goodness. It’d be like monetizing a good time! What do you think? Would you come and try a pachamanca? Furthermore, how much would you pay for all you can eat and drink? Comment below!