Huatia, the Ancient Ritual of Cooking Potatoes in the Ground

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.

Huatia, an oven built out of the earth
Huatia, an oven built out of the earth

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

Finding the perfect location for Huatia off the side of the road
Finding the perfect 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.

A perfect day for Huatia
A perfect day for Huatia

It was amazing that scenes like this could ever exist just 20 minutes outside the city.

View from Huatia
Enjoying the view while preparing for Huatia

Building the earth oven for Huatia

First, we started by breaking adobe into smaller, roughly equal chunks.

First step of Huatia

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.

Building a huatia earth oven
Building a huatia earth oven

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.

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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.

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The potatoes cooked for thirty minutes.

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Then, we demolished the structure, trapping the heat in the ground.

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Next, we let the potatoes cook for a little longer, about 15 more minutes.

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Then, comes the fun part. We dug into the ground, looking for our potatoes.

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We forgot to count exactly how many potatoes we started with, but I think we caught them all!

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A feast of potatoes (and guinea pig)

Finally, we returned home with our prize.

Huatia cooked potatoes
Potatoes ready to eat

Potatoes cooked with huatia are a perfect pairing with guineau pig (cuy).

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Washing the dirt off of the potatoes

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.

Time to eat
Time to eat. The huatia gives the potatoes a special texture.

Reflections

I couldn’t have hoped for better guides.

My guides for Huatia
My guides for Huatia

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.

My first Huatia! One of the rare pictures with me on the other side of the camera.
My first Huatia! One of the rare pictures with me on the other side of the camera.

14 Comments Add yours

  1. So interesting. How did the potatoes taste?

  2. What a wonderful and unusual story. I figured out that you were in Peru but were you near Cusco? Enjoyed learning about this technique and the history. I hear that Peru has a couple hundred types of potatoes so the possible flavors must be endless. Nice post.

  3. Bob says:

    I bet they tasted good. A lot of people cook food buried in the ground or using techniques similar. Every time I have eaten this type food it was always delicious.

  4. Rebecca says:

    Really interesting way to prepare food – the traditional way.
    I’m intrigued: you say you drove into the desert, but I couldn’t see exactly where you were…

  5. Maxime says:

    Really cool! I will try it 🙂
    How tasted the potatoes ?

  6. What an interesting post. Nice to see people still practicing Ancient rituals like Huatia. Peru has always appealed to me as I love mountains and history. I like that wee VW bug your driving too – looks like a proper wee desert buggy. Great pics, great post!

  7. Alice Chen says:

    Those sweet potatoes look amazing! This must have been such a fantastic experience! It’s incredible to see how people were able to cook potatoes and other things without stoves. Good to know in case you ever need to live the nomadic life! haha!

  8. What an interesting day trip, being English I love potatoes. The white potatoes must have tasted great, the guides looked very experienced. I love your photo driving up in the old Beetle.

  9. Erin says:

    I love this idea!! Peru, traditions and potatoes… I mean, what could go wrong. Were they good?

  10. What a unique post and experience – we had never even heard of this before. We love potatoes – heading to South America this year we’ll have to add this to the list, looks like an interesting day trip. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Katie says:

    I had never heard of this ritual but looks incredible! It is such an amazing experience and a fantastic way to learn about a culture!

  12. Cat says:

    I’ve seen people using this ancient technique on TV, but have never thought of trying this myself. Thank you for sharing your experience! It looks like so much fun. I’d love to taste the potatoes and see how differently they taste 😛

  13. Bhushavali says:

    This just sounds yummm… I’m thinking of trying it out at my own backyard…

  14. This is so interesting. I have never seen potatoes being cooked in this manner and it looks like it isn’t tooooo difficult. I love potatoes and learning such a technique would be helpful especially on expeditions. I would love to give this a try.

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