Traditional Food

When Food Fell to Earth: Carnival’s Stew, Thimpu

Thimpu/Puchero in Carnival, Cuzco

Abundance and moisture define carnival in the Peruvian highlands.  At this time when lightning zigzags with abandon across the jagged landscape accompanying squalls of intense rain, and people with brightly colored serpentine streamers dance in circles and snaking lines, food celebrates water and completeness.

Thimpu, (pronounced team-pooh), also called puchero (pronounced pooh-cháy-row), defines the season.  With its combination of meats, starchy vegetables, green vegetables, and fruits all cooked in water, it is the Peruvian dish that brings past and present together in this wet time when the fields are entering full production.

According to Kerlin Nonajulca, the word thimpu refers to a cooking technique, boiling.  (timpuq, that which is boiled or timpuy, to boil).  Though common throughout the world, as for example in the New England Boiled Dinner of corned beef and cabbage or in the numerous soups of Korea, Nonaljuca writes that “it was the most important and common cooking technique among the population of the Inca state.”  If nothing else, it shows the transformative effect of simple water which when heated changes food from raw to cooked or which, when falling from the sky changes dry earth into verdant fields filled with good food.

As a result, it is significant that thimpu claims the noun that stands for this technique that is so important in the highlands of Cuzco where even in the summer cold is a constant presence and nothing is more soothing and warming than a hot soup.  It heats the hands that hold the bowl, the belly that consumes it, and the face that bathes in its scented breath.  This dish also gathers together the different kinds of abundance to make a whole when it combines meat, tubers, greens, and fruit and when it is served as a bowl of steaming broth, a plate of boiled richness, accompanied with sauces of stinging heat to spark its flavor.

It is not surprising that Peru’s leading daily, El Comercio claimed in a much cited article by prominent Peruvian food writer Catherine Contreras that thimpu is “one of the master soups of our gastronomy.”  (She actually wrote “sopas madres”  literally mother soups, those from which others originate but as a result they are also the master soups.  English does not join both together in a way that suggests mother, particularly when in the Andes it also suggests the pachamama, the mother earth which is the union of space and time.)

There is order here, an order that brings earth and sky together, since the indigenous people of Cuzco, like indigenous peoples of the Amazon, wonder in their folklore about the joining of earth and sky to produce food.  First the products of the ground, the tubers–potatoes, yuca, and carrots, are placed carefully on the plate, followed by the flesh of a symbolically significant animal that walks the surface of the earth–mutton or the sheep in this case, followed by the green vegetables that also grace the land’s face.  Finally one places the fruit which grows up in the air on tree limbs, peaches in the case of puchero.

The three parts of the sacred cosmos–the space within, the ukhupacha, the space around us, the kaypacha, and the space above us, hananpacha–are brought together when this dish is served.

In the neighborhoods of Cuzco, where this dish stands for carnival as a significant festival joining folk culture and popular religiosity, people dance around the yunza–a tree decorated with gifts in its limbs.  In a culminating moment the tree is felled and children pounce to snatch its gifts just like in Mexico when the piñata is broken and candy scatters all around, gifts fall from the sky like rain.

Ethnologist  Hiroyasu Tomoeda sees in the yunza a custom that may well have come up river from the Amazonian lowlands, such as those of Machu Pichhu and further down river, but which is also widespread now in highland Peru.  He argues it crystallizes a mythical concern about felling the tree of abundance so that people can get the food and riches it contains.  Tomoeda also relates this central rite of carnival to a common story of the southern highlands, from Cuzco south

Following the version gathered by Paredes Candia, Tomoeda narrates the story as follows.  “One day a fox ran into a condor in his path and he asked him to fly him up to the banquet in the sky.  At that time only in heaven [was food consumed].  The  condor agreed to take the fox with the condition that the fox have good manners at the banquet, but the fox with his typical bad manners stuffed himself so the condor as a punishment to him flew away and left him.  Some small birds gave the fox a rope so he could make his way down.  Suddenly a flock of parrots flew around the fox and he began insulting them.  On hearing his words the parrots sliced the rope with their beaks and the fox plummeted to the earth.  He broke apart like a ripe orange and from his belly came all the food that he ate which was now seeded throughout the earth.”  And, in one version or another, that is how people got food from the sky.

Instead of parrots, dancing people chop at the tree until it falls and flocks of squawking kids swoop to gather the fallen gifts in Cuzco’s yunza during Carnival.  Then once the food that dropped from the sky in a fox’s belly is appropriately cooked in the belly and boiling water of a big pot, abundance which brings earth and sky together again, is served up as thimpu.  Only now the banquet is on the earth’s surface and in the dishes of humans, while lightning–the great Andean God Thunupa continues to crash to earth as a reminder of the ongoing importance of the sky and rain.

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