Food & DrinksTraditional Food

To Stave off the Cold, Emolientes

At the edge of night and the edge of day, times when cold comes down into town and settles for a bit, women with steaming carts and brightly colored bottles take up places on street corners throughout Cuzco.  These women are called emolienteras because they sell one of the most popular and prototypical Peruvian drinks, emolientes.

There really is no good English translation, though the dictionary suggests emollient.   But, no one I know actually uses this word that sounds like whale-bone corsets, and grandmothers covered from head to toe and with lots of lace at any opening, unless they are talking about some kind of salve.

Emollient sounds like the Victorian days when snake-oil salesmen not only went door to door they plied their dubious wares wherever the public gathered.

Well, without the excessive coverings, the lace and corsets, those days have not completely disappeared in Cuzco.  In some ways they have been institutionalized.

While in the US people see ads and buy supplement tablets of this and that, here people stop in the mornings and evenings to get a glass of hot tonic water infused with herbs.   Understood as beneficial to the body, like a daily multivitamin tablet, the emoliente is more.

It stems from an ancient European tradition of drinking water in which the grain barley had been boiled as a tonic, something to bring better health.   Barley water is still drunk in the United Kingdom for its health benefits, as it is in Spain.  Even a brief search on the term barley water on the internet will reveal a range of claims for this grain-based drink.

Such ideas of health and medicine come from time well before modern medicine, with its blood drawing and laboratories to see what secrets are reveled within.  They come from the time of Galen and Hippocrates who developed ideas of humorism, the dominant medical theory until modern times.

Emolientera after Dusk, Cuzco
Emolientera after Dusk, Cuzco

Though now rejected by most formal medicine, humorism continues strongly in popular consciousness, both in Peru and in Europe and America.  It holds that the body functions through the combination of four humors which must be kept in balance for good health.  Since diet and activity were argued to impact the state of the humors, Europeans would worry about what they consumed and its impact on their health.

Barley water developed its use and argued health benefits in relationship to the theory of humorism and the Spanish brought both it and the ideas of humorism to the new world.

Here these theories became concentrated in the popular mind in terms of classifications of hot and cold, described in the classic work of the late anthropologist George Foster.  Though Foster studied the people of Tzintzuntzan in Mexico, nonetheless the hot cold complex has been found throughout Spanish America.

All foods are classified into hot and cold, not according to their inherent temperature, but according to their effects on the humoral balance of hot and cold within the body.

This idea, like the yin and yang of China that underlies much Chinese thought of what constitutes good food, provides a template for Peruvians in the preparation and consumption of food.  Thus garlic–something hot–is added to pork–something fresco or cold.  Cooks, especially traditional cooks, can quickly run through their larder and classify most everything according to whether it is hot or cold.

Well, this notion from Europe and especially from the Greeks and Arabs joined in Peru with a different Andean idea that cold is dangerous.  It is the property of night when the chill sinks from the high mountain glaciers, as if it came from another time, like the cold shadows that infuse the tombs where the ancestors’ bodies lay.

The idea is not so much the temperature, as the temperature in combination with the understanding that cold unsettles current time and reality.  It transforms, just as right now throughout the highlands frost is changing potatoes from plump, firm and crunchy mounds of delight into shriveled, dark chuño (freeze-dried potatoes.)

As a result cold marks times of transition in the daily round, such as those moments when night turns to day or day turns to night, when it is considered good to give the body an infusion of warmth to keep one alive and vigorous in the face of impending cold.

Serving Emoliente, Ttio, Cuzco
Serving Emoliente, Ttio, Cuzco

The emoliente then is a combination of Andean ideas — which had a strong understanding of food regulating the cosmic state of the body and, as a result, a whole tradition of herbal infusions and hot liquids to keep cold in check — with those of ancient Greece brought by the Spaniards.

So, when you see the emolientera with her cart, complete with a government license to sell in the streets, you see someone who like a priest can fend of the powers of night,  and you see someone who brings a twined tradition from Europe of vitamins and vital drinks along with Andean concerns for besting cold.

In Cuzco, her cart will have in its center a pot of hot liquid which is supposed to be barley water infused with horsetail (equisetum,) another traditional European medicinal plant.  She will fill a glass with that liquid and then add to it a selection of herbal infusions that line a side of her cart like an array of colored glass.  You choose the one she will add to your glass to give it color and additional taste, as well as health benefit.

When I asked the other day, the emolientera told me she had bottles of lime concentrate, boldo (a concentrate from the leaves of an indigenous tree — peumus boldus — often hailed for medicinal value,) pepinillo (an indigenous fruit —solanum muricatum,) airampu (a concentrate from an indigenous plant which is either a cactus fruit — opuntia airampu — famous for its intense red color, the color of life and, not coincidently, one of the main preferred colors of the Inca elite, or a similarly colored fruit of a tree — berberis lutea) and white gum (goma blanca).

While for the people of Cuzco the health properties of each of these are important, and are part of why they drink emolientes at dawn and dusk, still the heat of the hot liquid in a glass as it warms your hands, and its breath as the steam, redolent with scent, bathes your face and enters your lungs bringing vitality all by itself already calms and soothes when it is cold.

This experience of cold making your hands and face stiff, before you lift and drink something hot to chase the cold away and cause your extremities to relax, is paradigmatic of being in highland Peru, just as it was in Inca times.  And it awaits you on the next street corner.

Here is a recipe for emoliente.

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