Kindness, generosity, family, grace. This is huatia. Definitions can include something primal, beyond ancient, and mother earth, better called in this place Pachamama. This is where we begin. This is where food begins. This is where community is born. These are big abstract concepts for this out-in-the-country, earth-based method of cooking potatoes.
But before discussing cooking, the potato, or better said, all the potatoes bear consideration. There are hundreds of varieties of potatoes throughout Peru, the motherland of this rich tuber. Like aji, their nuances of flavor and texture run the range from sweet, savory, butter, dry, grainy, to creamy, just like the colors range from red, pink, dark purple, yellow, gold, yellow-orange, orange, white, to brown, through a range of combinations, solid colored, mottled, stained, graded. Every type of potato is its own delight to taste.
To create huatia, community comes together. Potatoes of all kinds gently washed and dried. A careful hole is dug in the earth. I say careful because as the hole is dug large clods of earth are set aside, intact. The hole is not huge, but sufficient to hold all the potatoes. The dirt clods are stacked loosely around the hole to create an earth oven. A small door is left open. Kindling is placed inside and lit. Small dry sticks are added, and as they catch and burn, small pieces of firewood are added. It doesn’t take much. The goal is to heat up the earth, the dirt clod oven. This takes about half-an-hour. Once it is all good and hot the variety of potatoes are placed inside the hole and the earth oven broken down, and sealed so no smoke is escaping. Inside the hot earth the potatoes cook. During the cooking folklore says that no one in the group is allowed to take a pee, anywhere, not at all. This will ruin the huatia.
Once the cooking time has passed a stick is used to begin opening up the earth where the potatoes have been cooking. The first one discovered is sampled to make sure they are completely cooked. Success. carefully digging through the hot earth, lifting up the potatoes as they are discovered, placing them together on a towel or blanket to be carried to the table where they will join the rest of the meal.
Grown in the earth. Harvested from the earth. Returned to the earth to bake. Dug from the earth again. Huatia, the cycle of community and rejuvenation continues. Don’t forget the aji.