Resounding church bells over terracotta tiles. Cries of “¡Churros!” and “¡Masajes!” in cobbled plazas. Six AM sunrises over the glaciated peaks of Auzangate. This is Cusco.
Sitting in this internet cafe, licking the remnants of the tamale I bought for 1.20 soles off of my fingertips, I mark the transition; a transition from the Amazon to the mountains, from indigenous community to metropolitan bustle, and from life being so close it was often feet from biting, stinging, or scratching through reapplied layers of mosquito repellant, to life protected by roofs and covered walkways – steps removed from the heart-racing closeness of the Amazon. Instead of hours-long conversations over breakfast with Doña Lucia about the proposed represas threatening to inundate her community of Asuncion, interactions here in the city are limited to a Buenas Dias or Hola. Instead of self-sufficiently growing, harvesting and cooking almost everything you need to feed your family, sustenance here in Cusco can be bought and consumed in seconds – like my tomale. Although delicious, nibbling on the masa and raisins just made me miss the community of 33 families I found integrated beautifully with their amazonian environment. Life felt more real in Asuncion. It’s not just that the Vía Láctea (Milky Way) and constellations seemed to rest on the tree tops – just out of reach of my fingertips. It’s not just that the yellow and black scaled bodies of the Lagartos and their rippleless slides into the murky water were less than five feet from me edge of the boat. It was the people that made Asuncion real – everyday stuff. My host sisters’ selfless sharing of stories. The ever-open invitation to play fútbol. Doña Lucia’s hidden power in the way she quietly but firmly gave directions in her cocina. It was the daily acts of kindness and compassion for a group of gringos that really had nothing to give in return that got to me.
In Asuncion, I spent a lot of my time in the cocina of Doña Lucia – my homestay Mamá. Each morning she woke up early, and when I entered the cocina with my ritual “¿Como está?” or “¿Como dormiste?” I found her simultaneously tending the fire in the mud oven and frying deditos or buñuelos. She fluently gave me directions in Spanish before effortlessly switching to Mosetén to tell her seven-year-old daughter to cut more wood. Her boundless energy is awe-inspiring, and her peaceful strength is something I know I will forever try to emulate but never fully achieve. I learned much from Doña Lucia – not solely about cooking in the Amazon, but about a life infinitely more real – infinitely more connected to people and environment. And so, I wanted to share a bit more than just a recipe for a breakfast favorite that I learned from my homestay Mamá – I wanted to share a glimpse into the life I found in Asuncion on the shores of Río Quiquibey.
Panqueques de Yucca in Asuncion de Quiquibe: A Recipe and A Reflection
Step One: Don´t forget your machete.
Step Two: Walk twenty minutes más o menos to the chaco up past the fútbol field that, instead of a plaza or government building, marks the community center. The field is the space people go after the temperature shaves off a few degrees in the afternoon to play fútbol – sans shoes. On the winding rainforest path, make sure to watch out for the line of leafcutter ants that march along the steep section, or the shiny black shells of the bullet ants with their huge segmented forms that are easily spotted on the waxy green leaves of the trees you pass.
Step Three: Harvest the yucca – its a root, like a papa, so you need to dig it up. Gather wood for the clay and straw oven – you’ll need to make a sling to carry back the firewood from the inner lining of bark from a nearby tree. Wrap the bark around your bundle of fuel and tug two knots in the flexible fiber, lift the wood and place the slightly sappy strap across your forehead with the wood balanced on your lower back. Make the journey back down the muddy path to the cocina, past fields of rice snd sugarcane tended by other members of the community; past a women pounding the day’s rice. You stop for a moment to watch the delicate fall of the grain casings as the woman walks briskly from one end of the yard to the other, leaving a trail of sawdusty husks on the dirt and starkly white rice in her bowl. By the time you get back you’ll be sweaty and your neck will likely be a bit cramped, but if you’re me, you’ll be shocked at the comparative ease of carrying things from your forehead versus in your arms. A result of hundreds of years of refinement and need for efficiency with the millions of tasks that require attention in a single day; kids, cooking, harvesting food, sweeping, washing, cutting wood, milling rice – just to list a few.
Step Four: Stoke the fire. Fill up a metal pot with water from the spigot outside. Peel two to three pieces of yucca – after a bit of practice, the bark-like peel comes off the white flesh in one satisfying rind. Boil the yucca until a fork can puncture and easily slide through the root.
Step Five: Mash the yucca. You can do it with the bottom of a plastic cup, but careful as it will still be pretty hot. Mix with three to four eggs, más o menos a cup of sugar (if you have freshly squeezed and boiled sugarcane from your field this is immeasurably better), harina, and baking powder. Should ultimately be of a liquid consistency with a few lumps of yucca.
Step Six: By now, the adobe-style oven has been sufficiently heated. You know this from the packed earth that is radiating heat into the already steaming cocina, but thankfully the roof has yet to be finished and the wood slats forming the walls only come up about half way on one side letting an occasional breeze carry away some heat. Take out the larger pieces of half-burned wood to make room for your pan, leaving only red coals. After a splash of aciete, cover the bottom of the pan with the yucca mix.Place the pan carefully as far back as you can in the space created in the coals – don’t forget to rotate the pan every few minutes to evenly heat. Turn over the pancake after 8 to 10 minutes.
Step Seven: ¡Listo! The pancake has now fluffed up to two or three inches. Cut into four pieces and serve with marmelada de papaya (recipe to come).
Note: These are VERY addictive. Also, while cooking, be careful not to step on the ducklings waddling underfoot or Hochicito, the baby capybara.