23. Nov, 2014

The Mother of all Potjies

A friend of mine who is spending a week at his holiday home in the Waterberg mentioned to me that he was planning to make “potjiekos” this weekend, and asked me for suggestions and tips. This got me thinking about other dishes with a shared DNA. A “potjie” is regarded by many South Africans – in particular Afrikaners – as a uniquely South African dish. This may be true of the specific dish, but the principle is by no means unique. Many nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples have a tradition of making a meal in a single pot, and then adding what is available to it over succeeding days.

A related phenomenon is that of slow-cooking such meals in holes in the ground, to wit Mexican Barbacoa (the Yanquis bastardised this to “Barbecue”), Brazilian Asado and Greek Kleftiko. Generally speaking, the technique boils down to making a fire in a hole in the ground, covering it with a layer of soil or stones, and placing the meat – wrapped in fragrant leaves – on top. Another layer of earth seals everything in, and presto – an efficient rustic slow cooker!     

The Mother of all “Potjies” is to be found in the Chiloé archipelago in the South of Chile. The Chilotes (natives of Chiloé) are a proud people, who have managed to adopt modern technology for their benefit without forfeiting their ancestral culture. They proudly show off their roots through the clothes they wear, the handicrafts they sell and the food they like. The Chilotes are a unique amalgam of cultures, with a distinctive world view, life style and cuisine.

As Thor Heyerdahl attempted to prove with his Kon-Tiki expedition, there may well be a link between the indigenous peoples of South America’s Pacific seaboard and the Polynesians. Apart from the physical resemblance, one of the key exhibits in this on-going debate is that the signature dish of the Chilotes, the world-famous Curanto, could be a derivative of a dish known as Umu or Imu in Polynesia. There is plenty of prima facie evidence.  The technique of cooking in a hole in the ground, the use of pre-heated volcanic rock, the wrapping of the food in large leaves, and the combination of pork and chicken with seafood are all just too co-incidental.

Although there is debate over its exact origins, there is no doubt that Curanto (meaning literally cooking with many stones in the Mapuche language) has been absorbed into mainstream Chilean cuisine. Further north it is typically prepared in a pot on a stove top, and called Curanto en olla (olla being Spanish for pot) or Pulmay. In its heartland, it is still mainly cooked al fresco and en hoyo (in a hole in the ground). Red-hot stones are placed at the bottom of a 1 ½ m deep hole, and covered with pangues (the leaves of the Nalca plant). Nalca is an indigenous shrub with large, fan-like leaves and a tart taste which led to it being called wild rhubarb in some areas. Layers of shellfish, smoked pork, chicken, sausages, potatoes and dumplings are then arranged on top of one another, with more Nalca leaves in between. The Curanto is then covered with wet sackcloth and stones or soil, and literally left to stew in its own juices. It was originally a communal meal eaten on special occasions, but nowadays many restaurants also serve it more or less authentically.

Curanto is Chile on a plate. There are the clams, piure (red bait) and choro zapato (giant black mussels) that the indigenous hunter-gatherers would have eaten since time immemorial. There are potatoes; indigenous to the Chiloé archipelago. There are chicken drumsticks and Longaniza sausages – food that the Spanish would have brought with them. Last but not least, there are smoked pork and dumplings, courtesy of the German settlers. It was also clearly a meal intended for people who do hard manual labour in fresh air – it is a lot of food, and filling to boot.

In restaurants, Curanto is served with lots of pride and a suitable amount of ceremony, and is certainly a sight to behold. The upmarket venues serve it Bouillabaise-style, with the solid foods neatly arranged in one plate and the liquor in a separate soup bowl. In side plates there are slices of lemon, mayonnaise and ensalada chilena (a simple but refreshing salad of onions, tomato, chilli pepper, coriander leaves, olive oil and lemon juice). Patrons are issued with bibs, and reassured that using one’s hands was not just allowed but in fact encouraged. If you ever have the opportunity to partake of a proper Curanto, don’t think twice – it is a veritable feast. Even Philistines who dislike seafood will find plenty in it that they’ll like.