A small, colorful world full of flavor appears among white, billowy clouds when you open a papa rellena, a Peruvian stuffed potato roll that is one of its creole classics. As a result, this very meaningful crispy-fried metaphor is a common snack in Cuzco’s markets during the day and on its streets once night falls.
Just like the large word in which we live, for the Incas the sky where clouds travel was also a world. The Spanish chronicler, Bernabé Cobo (p.16) narrates a story from Ancasmarca that is similar to ones found elsewhere such as in Guaman Poma.
Once upon a time, he says, the llamas got very sad and even quit eating. On realizing their condition, their herder asked them what was going on. “Look at the sky,” they responded. “Do you see that community of stars up there? They are talking about how a bad flood is coming and how we might die.” Because they were paying great attention to what was happening among the society of stars the llamas were able to save themselves and their herder. They climbed up to the top of the mountains and when the flood came it did not carry them away.
This is the idea enclosed in a papa rellena. Just as in the world up above, enclosed in clouds as if they were woven cloth, or just as in the world inside the earth, enclosed in the folds of mother earth, there is another world with other people. In the same way, when a child is born it is wrapped in cloth for its first year or so, and its mother carries it on her back until it can speak and becomes a he or she. Since it comes from another world and still has not taken on the customs of this world it must be wrapped in cloth to help it learn our ways.
A papa rellena is crispy and toasted brown on the outside, as if it were a rounded, sunny hill. But inside it is soft and light, made from mashed white or peruanita potatoes. In the center you discover a world of filling in which a variety of ingredients, generally finely diced, and flavored with the dark warmth of Peuvian red aji, a hot pepper. The main ingredient might be minced beef, or minced chicken. Or it might be a while boiled egg, as if there were a world within a world.
These main ingredients come with multitudes. While elsewhere in Peru or online, recipes call for onion, raisins, and olives, in Cuzco they tend to go for colors. So they use carrot, peas, onion, potato, olives, garlic, and pepper. Sometimes they even add green beans. The beef and chicken potatos may also contain slices of boiled egg. In this way, when the potato is open, a fiesta of distinct colors like a world in celebration, opens before you. It is also a world of separate flavors joined together like a parade of dance troupes winding through the city’s street.
To make them you first cook up the ingredients and then mash the potatoes with a fork until they have no lumps. You make a flat round of potatoes in your hand, put filling in the middle of it and then roll up the sides bringing closure. You smooth this out until it is torpedo shape. Then, in Cuzco, you dip it in a flour and egg batter to coat it well before placing it in hot oil where it ccrisps and cooks through.
The potatoes are generally served with llantan, a Cuzco hot sauce made of the herb huacatay, often called black mint, and hot rocoto peppers. They also might be accompanied by mayonnaise or mustard, depending on the clients’ taste.
Every afternoon, as night approaches, women pull their carts into place on the city’s streets. They heat up their fry pans with oil to quickly fry up thick torpedos of potato when their clients arrive. This typical dish is served fresh and hot, right from the pan.
People often stop for them since it is a custom to grab a snack at dusk, before going home, or in the evening when one is out and about. The taste and meaning of the papa rellena attracts them, even though most people do not stop to think of the symbolism. Instead the potato pleases them because it combines desirable flavors with love of country. As creole food, gastronomía criolla, it is very Peruvian and very indigenous.
In Cuzco’s colonial core, vendors of papas rellenas are found in the market of San Pedro during the day, and in the evenings on the Ruinas, Tres Cruces, and Belén streets.