Corn, as we well know, has been the most important crop in the Andes since the time of the Incas. From it are derived many products, such as humintas, sweet corn pie (pastel de choclo), and many others that are very important in the diet of the Andes.
The city of Cuzco offers a great variety of typical dishes with a lot of tradition. One amazing treat it offers is the traditional soup called lawa de maiz also called crema de maiz. In Quechua it is called sara lawa. A creamy gruel of corn the soup has substance and yet is light. This soup is consumed with great frequency in the city of Cuzco, especially given the importance of corn production here.
It is one of the favorite and most eaten dishes in the great majority of Cuzco families. In fact it could be easily considered one of the standards of Cuzco’s cuisine. Year round we can enjoy this delicious concoction and we can find it every day on the list of offerings in Cuzco’s markets as a first course.
There are two easy ways to make this traditional creamy corn soup. The first is from fresh corn (choclo) and the second from dried corn.
As a creamy gruel, lawa is made from corn meal, either made from ground fresh corn or dried. If fresh then the grains are first pealed of their outer coat, making them a bit like hominy although without having been slaked in lime, before being ground finely.
This soup has a delicious subtle flavor due to the combination of corn with potatoes, broad beans, lamb, and aromatic herbs. First one makes a base of sliced onions over which you pour water and bring it to a boil. In the savory water you now cook the meat, then add the potatoes (one potato per serving), then the broad beans (fresh if the corn is fresh and dried if the corn is dried), and finally the corn meal (ground with huacatay herb when fresh). This makes a layered flavor in which the corn flavor is gently dominant and supported by the other flavors, although when biting into a broad bean or chewing some meat you get a burst of flavor.
In addition, the soup can be made without meat. In that case it is called lawa de viernes, of Friday’s Lawa. In this case the soup is made the same way, only without meat, until the end when cheese is added to melt into the soup, followed by eggs broken into it and lightly cooked.
Corn Lawa is not much known outside of Cuzco. Those people who try it in one of our restaurants, however, find themselves delightfully impressed with this creamy soup that seems both down home and exotic.
It is a good soup for people who have only recently arrived since it is tasty and filling all the while nourishing and light. Their bodies will not be overwhelmed with heavy food while they struggle with the effects of altitude all the while they will be satisfied and well fed.
Nevertheless, only a few of the tourist restaurants offer this traditional soup; most tend to prefer soups that come from packages rather than the traditional soups they eat at home. They assume the tourists prefer the industrial cream soups to Cuzco’s own soups.
Nothing is better, though, than a lawa made on one of Cuzco’s traditional, wood-fed, earthen stoves. The rich flavor of the soup is combined with a slight smokiness which makes it almost the essence of the Andean culinary experience. Our grandmothers would make soups like this for us in large pots of clay from fresh corn brought straight from the fields to nourish their children and grandchildren who worked the land.
This soup is surprising. It has its own technique for eating. If followed the soup maintains its consistency and creaminess. If not, it separates.
To make it, the corn meal is moistened in water and then added little by little to the boiling, flavored water while stirring to avoid lumping. It is then boiled to just the right thickness. Boiled longer it will thicken to much and not enough it remains too watery. As a result, one must consume the soup while hot. If it cools down it becomes a mass not unlike a hot corn cereal.
But it is also difficult to eat because it is served hot, at 100 degrees centigrade. If we try to cool the soup down by stirring it, we cause it to separate. Instead we must carefully follow the proper technique.
We lightly lift from the bowl the uppermost layer of soup without stirring at all. That is the part that is cooling while the lower layers are still hot. And so we advance until we finish the soup and enjoy its delicate delight.
Here is the recipe for this delicious traditional soup.
Corn Lawa (Lawa de Maíz, Sara lawa)
- 1/2 kilo potatoes
- ½ kilo corn meal (either from fresh corn or dried)
- Two garlic cloves
- One onion
- Teaspoon of cumin
- Two tbs. oil
- Salt to flavo
- Aromatic herbs, such as huacatay
- 1/2 kilo of lamb.
In Cuzco you can buy the ground corn in its markets, or you can buy whole corn and grind it. In North America you might try a commercial white corn meal.
- Make a base of diced onion and garlic with salt and pepper. Fry it in oil over a low flame until soft.
- To it add 2 liters of water and the meat in chunks.
- Bring to boil and cook.
- Add peeled and halved or quartered potatoes and cook.
- Add fresh or dried fava beans and cook.
- Finally mix the meal with the ground aromatic herb to taste and add cold water to thoroughly moisten it.
- Slowly add it to the liquid while stirring.
- Once all the moistened meal is in the pot, add salt and oregano to taste and continue stirring while the soup cooks until it reaches the desired consistency of a cream.
- This soup can also be accompanied with toasted bread or french fried potatoes, if you wish.
- Serve by placing in each bowl a potato and a piece of meat, before delicately ladle-ing the soup from the pot and gently placing it in each bowl, so it does not separate. Serve immediately while soup is still at the boiling point.