ANGOCHAGUA, Ecuador – An ancestral technique in which meat, tubers and vegetables are cooked below ground in a volcanic rock-heated earth oven, or pachamanca, is being kept alive today by small indigenous communities in Ecuador’s Andes region.
One such place nestled amid the hills and valleys of the Andean province of Imbabura is La Magdalena, a small community in the rural parish of Angochagua where members of the Kichwa-Karanki people serve as proud guardians of this centuries-old culinary tradition.
A family business in that community known as Pondo Wasi is looking to preserve that practice through tourism, providing visitors the chance to experience an authentic pachamanca preparation and later savor the distinctive flavors of that cooking method.
“Our indigenous people discovered that they could cook food much more quickly underground with hot stones than outside in pots,” the owner of that eco-lodge, Alexis Criollo, a member of the Kichwa-Karanki indigenous community, told EFE.
Although that technique is employed throughout the Andes region, Ecuador is unique in using extrusive igneous rocks that were formed from the lava that cooled after being ejected from one of the country’s roughly 30 active volcanoes.
But the Pachamanca experience is much more than a gastronomic technique.
Before the food is placed underground, Ecuadorian indigenous people typically perform an energizing ritual to drive away negativity and humbly ask the earth for permission to cook and enjoy the products that she provides.
“In our view, nature is a sacred place and we go in (after) holding ceremonies that help us enter Allpa Mama (Mother Earth) harmoniously,” said the person in charge of the rituals, Segundo De la Torre.
Plants like chilca, rue and the stinging nettle are used in the ancestral ritual to help ensure the diners are filled with positive energy when they consume their pachamanca feast and also to raise awareness about the need to protect the natural environment.
The basic elements of the Andean cosmovision are air, water, earth and fire, De la Torre said, adding that all of them must be protected to avert a “catastrophe.”
Grains also are buried as an expression of gratitude to Allpa Mama as part of the pre-culinary ritual, with a crown of flowers marking the spot.
The idea behind the pachamanca is to create a kind of pressure cooker inside a pit dug in the earth. The volcanic rocks – pre-cooked over a fire – are placed at the bottom and then topped by corn, beans, potatoes and different types of meat. Finally, the hole is covered by chilca leaves, which serve as an insulation layer.
Criollo said micro-nutrients emanate from the rocks and, along with the insulation materials, give the food “a special and different flavor.”
The food is left to cook for around three hours, a process in which visitors to the lodge also participate.
“It’s like a minga (a kichwa word for collective work with a social purpose),” said Maria Tambi, the young entrepreneur’s mother, who said she prefers this method of cooking because “pots and aluminum are harmful to our health.”
Pondo Wasi’s goal is to promote the customs and traditions of the native people of that highland region and preserve their ancestral knowledge.
“Young indigenous people are not interested anymore. Even Ecuadorians like us aren’t interested in learning about our culture and instead prefer to go away to other countries,” Criollo said.
The earth oven technique was used in the Neolithic and some vestiges of the practice can be found in Europe, but it mainly developed in what is now Latin America and remains in use today.
“The earth gives us our food,” Criollo said, adding that human beings are not sufficiently grateful for all the benefits it provides and instead only “exploit and pollute it and cut down trees.”