Think of stewed, tender pork in a lightly sour broth, mildly seasoned with mild red aji, garlic, and a faint hint of cumin, and you have one of the classic dishes of Cuzco. In fact the Peruvian food historian Rosario Olivas Weston writes that to visit Cuzco and not try adobo is a serious sin. Why would this dish be so important?
This question is especially important when one realizes that many regions of Peru have adobo as does Spain, the rest of Latin America, and the Philippines, whose adobo has been much written about in the United States.
While we cannot, at this writing, go to Olivas Weston’s though, we can look at adobo and Cuzco.
At its root, the word “adobo” comes from old French. It referred to the process of “curing”, including tanning leather or preparing meat such that it could be preserved. As a result, it also was used to describe the process of training knights, especially by landing blows on the young knight’s back.
Ancient Peru had its own ways of training young warriors. More important to understanding its adobo is that idea of curing meat that in Spain also has Arabic roots. In this sense an adobo is a kind of rub of seasonings and salt used to cure the meat, or even to prepare it for cooking. In this sense, the word “adobo” is widely used in Latin America and even appears in New Mexico in its dish called “carne adobada”.
One way in which the meat was cured was to use vinegar. From this curing of meat in vinegar came a sour soup that was called “adobo” and which was known for its ability to be stored. Vinegar is key for making Philippine “adobo”. Although vinegar is not used in Cuzco, something else from its repertoire of condiments has become key in much Hispanic adobo.
That is dried, ground pepper called here ají or uchu. In Spain the red pepper powder has become a key to curing meats, but also provides a key aesthetic of food. Both the yellow from saffron, whose name in Spanish is from Arabic, and the red from peppers that came through Spain’s engagement with the new world provide the palette of colors that create Spanish food. Of course, these also are the colors represented in the Spanish flag. The food and its aesthetics were and are a way of giving identity to people that they could take into them selves. The outside could be made inside.
While the history of how this complex and changing Spanish set of customs and understandings for curing meat came to Cuzco and developed here, one can see some similarities and some differences.
In Peru the color red also has great significance. The colors of its flag are red and white, but those colors were not chosen at random. Rather they carry a memory of the Incas for whom red and white were also important colors and were died in wool and made into Inca tunics.
For example, during the feast of Capac Raymi, young men would be given tunics of red and white as part of their passsage from boyhood to manhood, according to Cobo.
Capac Raymi was held during the summer solstice, and Christmas has come to occupy that space of fetivities in Cuzco. But right now the Plaza de Armas churns with practices and performances of dances. Cuzco has entered in its high ritual season which this year will include back to back Corpus Christi, the Days of Cuzco, and Inti Raymi, the re-creation of the winter solstice ritual of Inca times.
Red is an important color in Andean thought for its association with life and fertility, whether through flowers or through the vitality that comes from blood coursing through the body. In this case, it is more than Peruvian nationalism and more than memories of an Inca past and hopes for an Inca present.
Cuzco’s adobo brings together this red, in the form of ají panca, a red chile pepper which is used to season the broth and give it color, as well as the white of chicha brewed from Cuzco’s white corn. Adobo is not made here from vinegar, but from chicha. The chicha and the red pepper (along with garlic and a tiny bit of cumin) “cure” the meat. And in the presentation of the dish, a red rocoto cooked in the broth is added to the top to further the symbolism of red.
To this is added the white of not just the chicha, but the onions that are also an important component of the dish and the white of the bread that is served with the adobo.
While we could be talking about how red and white in Inca clothing domesticated boys and girls by making them into adults, as a kind of curing, here we are speaking about “pork”, since adobo in Cuzco is a pork dish.
Pork was not found in the Inca Empire prior to the coming of the Spanish. But it was one of the main meats brought by the Spanish, for whom it was particularly significant since neither Muslims nor Jews consumed it. As a result it could stand as a symbol of the Catholic kings and their people that moved into the new world.
For Incas, the meat was a symbol of the invaders. But in the dish adobo, the invader’s animal, pork, is cured by being cooked in the very indigenous chicha and red pepper. It becomes domesticated and made into something very Peruvian, very Cuzqueño.
As a result, Cuzco’s adobo has much sense in it, whether explicitly explained or simply ladled into the mouth. The dish can stand for many things in Cuzco’s experience, including its contemporary dealings with tourists.
It is no surprise, then, that the dish is consumed frequently. Rosario Olivas Weston writes that it is often eaten mid morning to bring strength as the day grows, or at lunch time.
Adobo is best, it is argued, when it is made in traditional clay pots on a traditional stove also made of clay. When made this way, people claim the flavor is more intense.
In any case, if visitors to Cuzco wish to know the city and its culture through its food, they should try adobo. And, if they wish to eat it with people from Cuzco a good place is Mundialistas Restaurant, in the city, or go to the town of Saylla, at the city’s edge.