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Thoughts on Food, Inside, and Outside

Inside is an important place. On the whole, when it is wet and raining, inside is where people stay. But it is more. In Cuzco, it is a place that has a lot of cultural emphasis and as a result, shows up as an important idea in Cuzco’s cuisine.

In much of the world people worry about insides and hence, surfaces. For example, a good steak, seared on the outside and yet juicy and pinkish or even red inside. Or a crispy fried chicken which is also moist and juicy inside. We could also add bread or pie, each with a good crust and an inside, light in the first case and sweet and juicy in the second.

Whether we like it or not, such things claim reference to similar notions that are abroad in our culture, such as the idea of the individual also crusty on the outside and juicy and full of depth inside.

For Westerners the inside is the place of the mind, the soul, and the self. It is where truth lies, and essences are found. It is also invisible, until opened, while the outside is the observable and the potentially false. As a result we look for harmony in between the skins and insides of persons, even if we enjoy contrast in our foods.

Rocoto Relleno Ready to Eat
Rocoto Relleno Ready to Eat

How we understand food at deep levels, and the aesthetics we apply to know when food is good can be argued to relate to these other ideas abroad in our society. They provide support and meaning when we look, even though the world of food can be developed independently. Still to be acceptable and meaningful, it engages these other domains of meaning to appear a whole (even if, as in the above example, a contrast opens between our idea of persons and our aesthetics of food).

Even though, as a Spanish speaking land, Cuzco is part of the West, as the inheritor of the Inca Empire and thousands of years of independent civilization, it is not European. On the one side you find the Cathedral, the modern State, Starbucks, and McDonalds, while on the other you have Unu Punku, the Water Gate, the climate, the great mountain peaks, and all the caves entering to the inside where, as people say in folklore, the Inca still live.

Inside and outside do not work as a metaphor for understanding the joining of the Inca and the modern, Western or hybrid.

One can certainly find expressions where it works, such as in the idea that in the world within the earth the Incas still live, or in the popular saying when ´people get angry that “se me salió el indio”, “my Indian came out.” While in the Incas living within the earth still we find notions of time and seasonality, in the latter expression we find an idea of European dominion. To the Catholic and the European, of course the inside has the Indian and all other kind of “wild” things. It is the place of passions and of demons. As a result it also must be publicly subjugated to the outside. The devils bow down to the Virgin and the Indigenous dancers never really challenge the Saints, they just dance alongside or behind while the Saint rises above them.


However, a different idea also exists in Cuzco, sometimes intertwined with the above and sometimes clearly distinct. In one form the above is dominant and the other stays safely inside as pride and difference that maintains itself while subjugating itself to the dominant power of government and religion. This idea is like a cloth in which one thread mostly stays hidden inside the weaving although from time to time its color shows through. You know it is there, but it stays safely hidden except when the design demands it.

The other idea sees the threads as composed of two colors, like a wairuru, a red and black seed, and a red and black thread where the two colors are twisted together and give each other support and relevance while never subordinating the one to the other.

This is the idea of the wet and dry seasons, the one coming before the other, with times of change in between. According to Yaya’s thought, this is also the time of the upper half of the city and the lower half in Inca times, where there were two suns, one for the rainy season and one for the dry season. When the one showed the other was hidden within and vice a versa. This is also the notion of men and women and their constant contrast and conflict, where the one is never subordinated to the other except momentarily, despite the dominant national patriarchy.

We could carry this essay on for pages and pages in order to develop this, but perhaps we should leave the ideas a bit undercooked and think about Cuzco food.

Rocoto Rellenos For Sale
Rocoto Rellenos For Sale

For a long time I have been fascinated with Cuzco’s rocoto rellenos, stuffed hot peppers, which are so different from those of Arequipa. The white city at the foot of Misti volcano claims the rocoto relleno as one of its typical foods, but they do them significantly different from Cuzco where the food also has symbolic weight as iconic and very important within ceremonial meals.

To put the difference simply, in Arequipa the red rocoto is the outside and it has a filling inside, while in Cuzco it is as if the rocoto were wrapped in a blanket. It lies in an additional coat that hides the rocoto. It is placed in a egg batter that either completely or partially hides the rocoto. When the rocoto rellenos are sold on the street they are further wrapped in paper and then cloth to keep them warm and appetizing. But the presentation is like that of the traditional child wrapped and then wrapped some more, its head appearing above the weavings.

That is one kind of inside that appears in Cuzco’s food, another is like the chicharrón or lechón, pork with a crispy exterior, far crispier than normally expected by this Westerner, with a very juicy inside. The outside also contrasts with the potatoes that come from inside the earth and with the greens, whether mint, cilantro, or the wacatay uchukuta (hot sauce). This green is from the outside and marks that place of existence.


Space, and hunger, dictate we should leave this for now, even if inconclusive. Cuzco’s cuisine is bound to show relations both with Western notions of inside and outside, as well as more indigenous ones. After all, other domains of its society do. But to really make sense of it we shall have to plumb deeper into its culinary culture

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