The scent of burning wood, leaves, and grass perfumes the air in much of Cuzco these days, especially in rural areas where people are harvesting potatoes.
It is the time of huatia or huathia, ovens made of clods in which fresh tubers, and sometimes meat, are cooked.
Versions of these basic ovens, are found throughout the Americas and probably are one of the most basic of common culinary techniques that date to well before the coming of Europeans.
One finds these above ground versions and then the pit ovens into which heated stones are often dropped. A common Peruvian dish, Pachamanca is made with this latter version. Although it is not common to Cuzco, a restaurant opened near Saylla, specializing in Pachamanca—which means “earth food”.
As evidence of the widespread nature of these ovens we can cite a recent study in Spanish of Mayan food on the Yucatan peninsula. The researchers explored a comprehensive set of remains from archeological sites to assess them for what they said about diet and means of cooking.
They found that the animal bones, mostly deer, showed evidence of being cooked with an indirect source of heat such as happens in the earth ovens which in Yucatan Maya is called a píib.
These kinds of underground ovens are commonly used still in Maya areas of the Yucatan. The authors, Herrerra Flores and Götz, then quote an ethnographic study by Salazar et al. They found:
a predominance in the use of native plants for the making of the subterranean ovens, as well as greater use of local species of animals that were cooked in them for which, taking into consideration this predominance of local elements it is probable these subterranean ovens were used in Prehispanic times, since there is considered to have been a continuity in the use of with what and how they are constructed.
Bee Wilson considers the pit oven, as she calls it, an ingenious technology. Not only is it one of the oldest, she writes, but it was “the greatest technological innovation in food preparation until modern times. “ She considers it a “superb technology” and finds amazing evolutionary benefits in it.
It made it possible to eat numerous wild plants that would otherwise have been more or less inedible. The types of foods traditionally cooked in the slow moist heat of a pit oven tended to be bulbs and tuberous roots rich in inulin, a carbohydrate that cannot be digested by the human stomach… Hot-stone cookery transformed these plants through hydrolysis, a process liberating the digestible fructose from the carbohydrate. … A pleasant side effect was that the long, moist cooking made unpromising wild bulbs fantastically sweet.
Though huatias are made above ground from clods of earth, the idea is similar. This ancient technology, from before pottery and metal-work were invented, not only is still used, it is valued highly for preparing the most delicious food.
Whether these are tubers, including ones like those described by Wilson, or meat, the results of a huatia are considered highly flavorful and delicious. People love them, especially when a bit of hot sauce is added to them. The earth oven is key to understanding Cuzco cookery and its celebration of one of the most ancient, yet sophisticated, technologies found in the Americas.
Bee , Consider the Fork: A History of How we Cook and Eat (Basic Books, 2012), Chapter One, Pots and Pans.
Salazar, Carmen, Daniel Zizumbo-Villarreal, Stephen B. Brush y Patricia Colunga-García Marín 2012 “Earth Ovens (Píib) in the Maya Lowlands: Ethnobotanical Data Supporting Early Use”, Economic Botany, 66 (3): 285-297. New York: The New York Botanical Garden Press-Springer.
David Alejandro Herrera Flores y Christopher Markus Götz, “La alimentación de los antiguos Mayas de la península de Yucatán: consideraciones sobre la identidad y la cuisine enla época prehispánica”, Estudios de cultura maya, xliii, pp. 71-98, 2013.