Food Culture, Peruvian Cuisine, Traditional Food

Manna in the Streets

Maná in Cuzco

Wide, white kernels of soft corn adorn many street corners in Cuzco where they join other snacks that keep the city going. Called maná, which in English means manna like what fell from heaven in Sinai, they are popped but are worlds away from the popcorn which is also often sold on Cuzco’s streets. Nevertheless, they have a deep history in this city.

Cuzco is where the valleys of corn, the crop which is the staff of American life from North America south to where the land ends just before Antarctica, meet the highlands of potatoes, the crop which caused populations to boom all over the world. Corn is found in so many commercial food products in one form or another while potatoes are a basic food around the world and in fast food restaurants everywhere. Though both have huge commercial uses, the traditional techniques and uses continue to be found.

Popcorn in Cusco
Popcorn in Cusco

Bernabé Cobo, a Spanish Jesuit born well after the Spanish conquest made his way to Peru just as the sixteenth century came to a close. But he spent the next sixty-five years there and wrote some of the more important works trying to bring together the scattered knowledge of Inca Peru.

Canchas with Rocoto
Canchas with Rocoto

He noticed the importance given by the Incas to corn and wrote about how it was prepared to accompany other food or to eat alone. Of note for us, he described the technique of toasting which the Incas performed on many grains. But from corn came at least two products, the canchas–what Garcilaso insisted should be called camchas— which is more like what in English was called “parched corn” and the pisancalla which is unique.

In writing about their vegetables, I have already stated that the ordinary bread that they eat is maize, quinua, and chuño or dry, fresh papas (potatoes).  Maize is toasted in clay casseroles pierced with holes, and it is their bread.  It is the most usual ration of food that they take with them on their journeys, especially a maize flour that they make.  They toast a certain type of maize until it bursts and opens up: they call it pisancalla, and they consider it a delicacy.  There are small cakes and rolls ordinarily made from maize flour called tanta.  Apart from them, as a treat, from this maize flour they customarily prepare some small cakes by cooking them in a pot.  These cakes are called huminta.
The pisancalla is what contemporary Cusqueñans call maná. It is not corn that pops into a flower from small grains. Rather it is wide grain corn that maintains its form as it puffs and enlarges. In Bolivia they still use the Inca word, while in Perú it is called maná, possibly following the biblical story of the bread God gave the Israelites in the desert to keep them from starving.

I do not know how that biblical term came to describe a toasted corn, not any but only the one that inflates while keeping its shape. Certainly it is a grain that is sweet and flour which the Catholic Encyclopedia describes as one of the characteristics of Biblical manna. But however pisancalla came to be called maná, the word still carries the meaning of miraculous and heavenly, as well as being something sustaining.

The word maná is also used in Perú to describe a sugar and egg concoction used to create food sculptures, some people say in replacement of European marzipan.

In any case the heavenly would seem to contradict the evident ubiquity of corn maná on Cuzco’s streets, since Europeans insist on distinctions between the sacred and the profane. But Andeans are not so driven to create huge divisions between the world of the sacred and the ordinary. In fact in many ordinary things are found the creative powers of the divine.

Such is maná. It is not only found on street corners to sustain people as they go about their daily round, it is also found in front of schools, to keep children well fed so they can absorb their learning. And it finds a place in most of Cuzco’s fiestas where it is simply served, without comment.

The Virgin and Tito Yupanqui in Copacabana
The Virgin and Tito Yupanqui in Copacabana

But an indication of its sacrality comes from understanding its relationship to pilgrimage and creation. One place to look for this is in the holy shrine of Copacabana, one of the three holiest places in the Andes, along with the city of Cuzco itself and Pachacamac on the coast.

Now the site of a miraculous Virgin, who not only draws pilgrims from throughout Southern Peru, but whose origin tale involves a replay of Inca Pachacutec’s bringing of the idols of the Sun to Cuzco and the incas. After Pachacutec’s descendent Tito Yupanqui carved the Virgin she quickly became the Indian Virgin par excellence throughout South America and continues to have importance.

But her shrine, in its focus on the toad and its role in bringing wealth, remembers the stories which would have the first Incas come from a crag on an Island nearby as well as the cycle of stories of the Pre-Inca God Thunupa, often associated with the High God Viracocha.

Along the main street of Copacabana, store after store displays enormous bags of pasankhalla which pilgrims buy to take home with them and share the pilgrimage with their families and friends. Sweeter than most maná, this pasankhalla carries the holiness of the sanctuary and takes it to others.

Pasankhalla in Copacabana
Pasankhalla in Copacabana

In this one finds an evident symbol of miracles and productivity. Through toasting, this corn expands to more than double its normal size and becomes soft. An ordinary corn kernel is hard and difficult to chew as a result. Through the transformation of toasting it miraculously softens and grows. As a result it becomes a metaphor of the kinds of transformations the Holy can carry out as it uses its power of creation in human affairs.

This is not the wafer of the Holy Host used in mass, a bread that represents the body of Christ, but it is part of the Saramama, the Lady Corn or Corn Mother. Without the pomp and glory of mass, but with a very Andean sanctity, it is available for consumption everywhere to carry out its work quietly. Only its name announces its power and its holiness. It truly is maná, manna.

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