Along highways throughout Peru different towns specialize in different food. As a result, traveling is to eat your way across the geography. In this way, different foods seem to spring from different mountains and specific valleys.
Where the Cuzco Valley narrows to a canyon through which the Huatanay River plunges sits one such town, Saylla. Once an ancient Inca settlement, and then a colonial town, Saylla now stretches along the main highway connecting the city of Cuzco with the populous and economically important highlands. All traffic goes through here and many people stop for deep-fried pork called chicharrón for which the town is famous.
Of course its forty some restaurants do not offer only chicharrón, though that is their specialty. They serve a range of traditional Peruvian dishes, both indoors and in park-like patios.
As the urban sprawl of Cuzco stretches towards it, Saylla is becoming one of the most popular entertainment places in the region. On weekends and feast days lines of vehicles wait to pull into the popular restaurants which pop with enthusiasm from good company, good music, and good food.
Saylla is an ancient place. Today, the town of some 2600 people is the seat of one of Cuzco province’s eight districts and, other than the restaurants, still has a largely rural economy. It is the historical Ayllu of Saylla Anahuarque and has an important complex of ruins 8 kms. from the contemporary town called Silkicanchi.
While you can find good chicharrón in the city of Cuzco, such as at Los Mundialistas (where some restaurants on the plaza send runners to purchase the chicharrón that tourists order and re-sell it for much more money), Cuzqueños consider the chicharrón of Saylla to be the best. Perhaps this is because of the traditional recipes that each restaurant uses to make their product as well as the competition among restaurants.
Made from pork boiled and then fried to a succulence inside and crispiness outside, chicharrón is a classic Peruvian delicacy. In Cuzco they serve it with huayro potatoes, boiled grains of corn called mote, a salad of onions and fresh mint, and uchukuta (rocoto peppers ground with spices and roasted peanuts).
The dish is a delightful combination of indigenous ingredients, such as the huayro potato, one of thousands of indigenous Peruvian potatoes, and the mote described by chroniclers as a kind of bread eaten by the Incas, along with pork brought by the Spaniards. A prototypical Spanish ingredient, pork is not only a rich meat, it suggests a lot of history.
Nothing is more symbolic of Spain than pork, including the bull that fills so many of its iconic signs. But, nothing is more representative of the history of colonization than pork.
Pigs were some of the first food animals brought by the Spanish. Francisco Pizarro González was a swineherd for some fifteen years in Spain before coming to the new world and leading an invasion of the Incas.
In Spain, given the centuries of struggle between Muslims and Christians, Pork had great symbolic significance. It is reported that lard was perhaps the preferred cooking fat in the Spanish court.
It is not surprising that pork entered the Peruvian diet. It is reported that pigs were the first food animals the Spanish brought with them to Peru and that they impressed the indigenous peoples who quickly called them k”uchi, or dirty.
Pork in its various forms was an important part of the Spanish diet, especially the fine cuts. But the lard rendered from fatty cuts of meat was also important. One can imagine servants and slaves tending vats of pork heated until the lard could be poured off and cooled for future cooking in the big house.
Pieces of the meat and skin that remained would be crispy and probably of little interest to the Spaniards who now considered themselves above such impoverished offerings. These may well have been the first chicharrones in Peru and probably were food the servants enjoyed.
Chicaharrón in one form or another is found throughout the Spanish new world. But it is not the same. It varies in process and flavor, though the general idea is the same. This speaks to the universal importance in the Spanish colonies of rendering lard from cuts of pork with their rich layers of fat and the fact that the process left something delicious behind.
While some sources locate the origins of Peruvian chicharrón in this history of the Spanish in Peru, others locate it in the pots of the African slaves brought to the colony by the Spaniards. It is argued they were responsible for raising and slaughtering pigs. and that once free of the Spanish yoke, raising pigs became a dedication.
Despite stories that Africans could not live at high altitude and that, as a result, few slaves came to the highlands, African slaves were an important component of the population of colonial Cuzco. They were about sixty percent of the size of the population of Spaniards (p, 199) and, if we believe anthropologist Olinda Celestino, blacks were the key population through which the Spanish and indigenous populations interacted.
By the eighteenth century, however, few Africans remained in the highlands. The growth of commercial agriculture on the coast drew them to the lowlands and those that remained easily blended with the local population of mestizos — mixed bloods (p. 201.) Nevertheless, their heritage remains in many aspects of Cuzco culture, such as dances performed at feasts where various versions of blacks are important, to the culture of cuisine, including possibly the chicharrón of Saylla, the gate to Cuzco valley.
Today, Saylla is visited daily by many people, both travelers on the highway and people who make a trip from Cuzco for chicharrón. The sides of the highway are lined with open air kitchens where cooks prepare chicharrón to entice passersby with the delightful smell of cooking chicharrón, and the sight of piles of off-white, crispy t’octo in glass boxes.
The municipality of Saylla organizes a gastronomic festival to attract both the people of Cuzco and tourists. In 2010 it was held the 28th of July and was the subject of a significant publicity campaign.
Saylla also is a community with its own traditions which annually has a fiesta on the day of its patron saint, the Virgen Purificada. The activities, including the mass and the presentation of troupes of traditional dancers also draw throngs of tourists and Cuzcqueños who take time to enjoy the towns gastronomic offerings.
NOTE: After enjoying the traditional chicharrón it is customary to drink a glass of anisado, prepared from cañazo (a traditional aguardiente) and anis seed to ease digestion, or as is said: “so that the pig will not jump out.”