Commentary, Customs, Food Culture

Wet and Dry Together Make Food Please

Chicken and Vinegared Vegetables (Escabeche)

The rains have fallen heavily in Cuzco, But soon the land and air will dry and days will pass with hardly a cloud in the sky. Every year it lurches from wet to dry, its annual cosmic round. This yin and yang arguably influences everything in traditional life, including the aesthetics of food.

Such things often lie in the background of people’s lives and influence how they think and what they take as good. I think that a combination of wet and dry, an annual round, is a common expectation in the cuisine of Cuzco and other Andean towns even if the people never openly talk about this as a rule. There is a feeling of rightness in food properly prepared that makes it all come together. It has an aesthetic, that ties into key cosmological ideas at the same time it relates to issues of nutrition.

A lunch around midday (or later if people follow the coastal style) consists of a soup followed by a main dish, just like the annual round, a season of rain and a season of drought. Together they make a successful, and even more a meaningful, lunch that satisfies head, heart, and belly.

Soup and Bread
Soup and Bread

Noon is when the sun shines bright and heavy, an overwhelming presence in the sky, except for when rain clouds conspire to hide him from the ground below. When the sun rules it is often the driest part of the day. Dawn, when the day is at its coldest, is seen to be dangerously humid, and dusk when the sun disappears is a time of transition from warm to cold,and dry to damp.

At these moments of transition people also eat, almost in acts of devotion though I have never heard such said.

At dawn or when people first get up, bundled in clothes, head covered to stay warm, they like a good bowl of steaming soup, a chicken broth or more. Like the time of day, the food is aqueous, but while the time is cold the food in its pot bubbles with heat.

Mote and Cheese
Mote and Cheese

But even that bowl of concentrated energy, nourishment, and heat is accompanied by dry. People spoon up the soup while nibbling on fresh bread, or pieces of cancha (parched corn), mote (boiled grains of once dried corn), and pusphu (boiled once dried broad beans). Though the mote and pusphu were not long ago in hot water, they now sit on a plate dry and waiting to be eaten.

When night falls, before going to bed, people have their cena, their dinner. It can be a lonche, a small meal of bread and a hot drink, or left overs from the main meal, with a hot drink. But again the wet and dry combine, though this time the dry is stronger than the wet, while in the morning the wet dominated the dry.

There is a time of day when hunger strikes, in between the meals. In nearby La Paz, this time is often called the “saxra hura” the “evil hour” or the “hour of desire”. It is when the belly demands something.

Pastel de Papa (Potato Terrine) with Corn and Salad
Pastel de Papa (Potato Terrine) with Corn and Salad

Cuzco’s streets fill with vendors offering snacks mid mornings and mid afternoons. These may be a rocoto relleno in the morning or an anticucho in the afternoon. In any case they tend to be accompanied by uchukuta (hot sauce) or cremas (mayonnaise, ketchup, or mustard), again the dry and the wet together.

While it is easy to over interpret a people’s way of life, I am struck by how much food seems to model the annual round of a combination of wet and dry. It seems to me you seldom get just dry or just wet. Instead they seem to want to come together as a means of making something complete and, therefore, satisfying.

The Weather of Cuzco
The Weather of Cuzco
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