The development of earthen ovens by our early ancestors altered the trajectory of human history, allowing early hominids to consume meat more safely and efficiently. While we’re now able to accomplish the same goals in a fraction of the time, there’s something unmistakably wholesome and gratifying about harnessing the elements to feed ones tribe, which may be why these ancient approaches to cooking have survived into the modern day.
While the heating elements of the traditional Yucatecan pibil are decidedly Mayan, several key ingredients used in the pibil’s most common recipe, cochinita pibil, are of Spanish origin, resulting in a bit of an Old World/New World hybrid. Pork is marinated in achiote, sour orange, habanero, and spices before being wrapped in banana leaves and placed over a bed of hot coals or rocks. Some rest banana-leaf wrapped tamales over the meat to round out the finished meal. The hole is finally covered in banana branches and leaves, sealing the pit and steaming the meat from above to cook overnight before it is eaten with corn tortillas.
Practiced primarily in Central Mexico, the process of barbacoa is a steaming and baking method commonly used in preparing lamb, goat, or beef. A hole is dug into the ground and lined with rocks, where a fire then heats the walls until they are red-hot. The wood and embers are swept out of the hole to make room for a large pot in which meat, herbs, and vegetables are sandwiched between maguey leaves (agave/century plant) over a small bath of pulque (fermented agave nectar). Varying methods place offal atop the meat for added tenderness. The pot is then covered and the hole buried shut to cook for up to 24 hours. The final product is a meal of consome, the thickened broth at the bottom of the pot, and tacos filled with the offal and meat, accompanied by chopped onions, cilantro, and lime juice.
Traditional Peruvian huatias are built and eaten each May-June, in the fields amidst a potato-harvest. In this process, a dome-shaped oven is built above ground using dry clods of adobe called curpas. A fire is lit within the oven to heat the curpas until the inner wall is fully charred, at which point whatever types of potatoes are being harvested, as well as other tubers such as ocas or mashuas and fava beans are placed inside. The dome is then demolished on top of the vegetables and covered with loose dirt to let sit for 30 minutes while baking the food, imparting a uniquely earthy flavor to the finished product. Uchucuta, a chile sauce of pulverized ají peppers and hucatay, is made alongside the huatia, while chicha de jora, a fermented corn beer, is consumed throughout the process.
A heartier, more festive descendant of the huatia, pachamanca is an entire banquet cooked underground. Developed in the Peruvian Andes, this approach to feeding a hungry crowd also pays homage to Pachamama, the Incan Earth goddess. Volcanic stones able to withstand higher temperatures are heated above a wood-fire before being lowered into a deep pit, which is then filled with a bevy of ingredients in an order reflecting the necessary cook-time. Potatoes and tubers are first in, followed by marinated meats – primarily beef, mutton, pork, alpaca, or guinea pig – whose juices are absorbed by the tough vegetables below. Fava beans, corn, huacatay (Andean black mint), and, sometimes, damp bananas for added moisture follow, before tamales are placed on top. The hole is then covered to steam and smoke for several hours before plating the feast.
A 6,000 year-old curanto pit found on Chile’s Chiloé archipelago may prove that this early form of cooking hosted the world’s oldest living recipe. Denoting both method and dish, curanto entails heating large, flat rocks that are then placed in a deep pit by the ocean before introducing a foundational layer of clams, mussels, and giant barnacles, which, once opened, will steam the rest of the food internally. Nalca leaves (giant Chilean rhubarb) separate each layer of food, including one of chicken, pork, and chorizo, followed by one of milcao and chapalele – variations on potato pancakes. Heavy chunks of sod and damp sacks cover the pit to trap the steam while the food cooks within. On the Chilean island of Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island, a similar type of pit cooking called Umu pae can be found, often adding in banana leaves, taro, and a dense vegetable cake called poe.
Though today a staple of New England summer tradition, the North American clambake, a process similar to that of the Chilean curanto, dates centuries before even the earliest Pilgrims. The method was passed onto European settlers by the Wampanoag of modern day Massachusetts, who placed white-hot rocks into a deep hole dug by the beach before layering seaweed between armfuls of lobsters, clams, mussels, quahogs, and sometimes onions, carrots, and corn. The mélange is covered with seaweed and sand to lock in the salty moisture.
Header image of a huatia in near Chinchero, Peru. Photo credit: Nicholas Gill.