For many people cooking is a fun way to spend time and forget about the woes of life. But eating the food is even more enjoyable. It and cooking, as in other parts of the world, are also explorations deep into the heart of our customs and traditions.
For example, many of our favorite dishes in Cuzco are called “uchu”. This word comes from our ancestral Quechua. It was the word for cooked food, although at its root it means “hot pepper”. Curiously, uchu does not mean the dishes are spicy hot, only that a base of very flavorful and aromatic hot pepper is a key to the dishes, especially pastes made from the yellow or red ají.
You will hear this word every day in Cuzco. Our hot sauce is called “uchukuta” and there are many dishes called uchus. They can involve ingredients from Europe or indigenous ingredients. In any case they refer to a process of cooking that has its roots deep in our ancestral past, long before the Spanish invaded.
One of our absolute favorite uchus, called uchu de lisas, is made from a unique native tuber that is only recently becoming known outside of the Andes. Here we call it Olluco, or papa lisa, in our Spanish. According to Wikipedia it is called Ulluco in English and scientists call it ullucus tuberosus.
This tuber is very colorful; it comes in combinations of red and yellow, though its flesh is yellowish white. It is filled with water and is crunchy. Unlike the potato it keeps much of its texture when cooked.
Lisas are important to us in Cuzco and an uchu from lisas is a dish that we eat off and on from the time we are children. Its flavor finds no equal.
Uchu (Ají) de Lisas
(for 5 persons)
1 kilo lisas (ollucos, or Ullucos).
½ kilo compis potatoes or a boiling potato.
¼ kilo salt dried meat, or regular beef, as you wish.
2 teaspoons ají paste.
Salt, pepper and cumin to taste
2 cloves garlic
Cut the lisas into small cubes or into strips as you wish. Bring them to a boil and drain. This is done to remove any bitterness the tubers might have.
Make what we call an aderezo, a kind of sofrito of finely diced onion and garlic, softened in hot oil, to which you add cumin, pepper and the yellow aji. Let cook for a minute or so for flavors to blend.
To this you add a cup and a half of water, as well as the dried meat and the potato. If using undreid beef, you dice it and add it now. Bring to a boil.
After ten minutes add the lisas and return to a boil. Then add the salt, pepper, and a stem of huacatay (or ground, bottled huacatay). Since the dried meat is quite salty it is recommended you add salt carefully, tasting to be sure the level is good.
Once the dried, salted meat (chalona) has come to a boil, remove it and shred. Add to the pot again to heat through. Reduce until the liquid is creamy.
Serve with white rice.