I’ve long been fascinated with Huatia, the earthen oven Incans constructed to cook potatoes in the ground. I had thought that huatia was something that was only for special occasion that we had to plan a week ahead of time or more. Instead, the knowledge for huatia is ingrained, and no special preparations were needed. All was required was a 9 pm phone call and the next morning we were off.
Please note that Huatia can refer to the earthen oven itself, the process of cooking food in the earthen oven, and the dish that is prepared using this method. I use the term in all three ways.
Location, location, location
We loaded some potatoes in the car and drove along the highway for a few kilometers until we found a spot that was deemed right. Suddenly, we found ourselves in the midst mountains with the sun high in the sky. It was the month of the winter solstice which is the perfect time of year for Huatia. The earth was dry and is even said to impart a special flavor on the food cooked in it during this time of year.
It was amazing that scenes like this could ever exist just 20 minutes outside the city.
Building the earth oven for Huatia
First, we started by breaking adobe into smaller, roughly equal chunks.
Then, we placed the bricks in a circular pattern, resulting in a structure not unlike an igloo. The circular structure helps concentrates the fire. The goal is to have the structure as sealed as possible to not let the fire escape.
Then, we started the fire inside the structure and let the fire build for one hour. Then, we started the fire inside the structure and let the fire build for one hour.
Cooking the potatoes
Finally it was time to put the potatoes into the fire. We used papas blancas (white potatoes), camote (sweet potatoes) and tubers called ocas.
The potatoes cooked for thirty minutes.
Then, we demolished the structure, trapping the heat in the ground.
Next, we let the potatoes cook for a little longer, about 15 more minutes.
Then, comes the fun part. We dug into the ground, looking for our potatoes.
We forgot to count exactly how many potatoes we started with, but I think we caught them all!
A feast of potatoes (and guinea pig)
Finally, we returned home with our prize.
Potatoes cooked with huatia are a perfect pairing with guineau pig (cuy).
The potatoes were not cooked with any spices or even salt. The process of cooking the potatoes in the ground imparts a earth flavor and a distinct texture that cannot be replicated in the kitchen.
I couldn’t have hoped for better guides.
It was an amazing to witness this ancient technique in which potatoes are cooked in the same ground in which they were grown. Huatia has it practical purposes, allowing the Incans to cook away from home since it can be done wherever there’s dirt and adobe. However, huatia is also intertwined into the Incan belief system. It is named after Huatiacuri who refused to eat potatoes not cooked in the ground.
The experience of building a earthen oven in the midst of the Andes helped me understand how connection between life, food, and mother earth in the Incan belief system. This belief in this link still persists within Peruvian culture to this very day especially in Cusco, the city that was once believed to be the center of the universe by the Inca.