Whenever we think of culture or cultural identity, we may be tempted to think of arts and crafts, mythology, literature, clothing, rituals. But food and culinary traditions are also forms of cultural expression and can give us a deeper insight into that culture’s history, development, and values.
In the 2018 game Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the ever-intrepid Lara Croft comes across a bowl filled with ch’arki and chuños in the Hidden City of Paititi and in this edition, we’ll be taking a closer look at the former, ch’arki, which is a salted and freeze-dried meat product that originated in South America and dates back to the days of the Inca Empire, possibly even earlier.
The Inca Trails Are Paved With Ch’arki
It may be a common ingredient in our modern-day kitchens but to the average ancient Andean, meat was considered a rare treat, usually reserved for special occasions and eaten sparingly. The average diet was largely vegetarian, consisting of grains such as quinoa and kaniwa; tubers such as potatoes, oca, and ullukus; legumes such as lima beans and tarwi ; and possibly the odd fish or guinea pig (cuy). Of course, if you happened to have the good fortune to be born into the upper echelons of Inca society, you could expect to enjoy a wide range of meats, including llama, duck, venison, and rabbit, though even these were eaten in moderation.
So where does ch’arki fit into the Inca diet? Well, due to the fact that much of Peru’s arable land lay within the Andes, crops were susceptible to the region’s harsh climate and natural disasters. To prevent food shortages, people living in these high altitudes took advantage of the region’s strong sunlight and frosty nights to freeze-dry certain crops and meat – normally llama or alpaca meat – for long-term storage. Under optimal conditions, desiccated products, such as ch’arki and chuños, could be stored for several months, or even several years, and could be rehydrated by soaking them in water or adding them to a hearty stew.
Its durability, portability, and high protein content made ch’arki the perfect foodstuff for those on the road. Inns (tampu) along the Inca roads would often store ch’arki, maize, quinoa, freeze-dried potatoes, and other basic commodities in their storage facilities (qullqa). These commodities could then be distributed to armies, officials, and laborers that happened to be passing through or be redistributed as emergency food rations for the general populace in times of famine. And to ensure that the storage facilities remained adequately supplied, communities were expected to pay taxes in the form of food. In short, the Inca economy and state-building apparatus were fuelled, in part, by a ch’arki tax.
A succinct summary of the archaeological and ethnographic research into Andean meat butchering and preservation methods can be found in K. Kris Hirst’s article, “Ch’arki: The Original Jerky Method of Preserving Meat”.
Ch’arki in Modern Peruvian Cuisine
This practice of curing and freeze-drying meat may have gotten the ancient Andeans through many a tough season but ch’arki is by no means a dying tradition. On the contrary, ch’arki is as popular as ever and is used in many Peruvian dishes, most commonly in stews and soups. Although ch’arki was traditionally made from llama, alpaca, or other camelids, modern-day varieties are more likely to be made from beef, lamb, or horse.
Visitors to Peru who would like to try ch’arki for themselves should consider seeking out dishes such as:
- Olluquito con charquí, a mildly spicy stew made from strips of ch’arki, julienned ullukus, and ají paste and normally served with white rice.
- Charquicán, a stew made from ch’arki, potatoes, corn, and squash.
- Charquicán de raya, a type of Charquicán stew made with dried skate.
If you can get hold of the ingredients and fancy trying your hand at some Peruvian home cooking, you can find simple recipes for olluquito con charquí over on Cuzco Eats, Peru Delights, and Food for the Hungry. Spanish speakers can find recipes for this popular dish over on ElPopular.Pe, Cocina Peru, Sabor Gourmet, and YouTube.
To Infinity… and Beyond
If the word “ch’arki” sounds familiar, it’s because the word “jerky” is derived from an Anglicised version of this Quechua word. Like ch’arki, jerky is a cured, dried, and occasionally smoked meat product which is often enjoyed as a snack. Similar meat products can be found across the world. These include biltong, which can be found across Southern Africa; sukuti, which is eaten in Nepal; and kilishi, the nutty, spicy dried meat snack eaten by the Hausa communities of West Africa.
And, what’s more, beef jerky has even made its way into space. This protein-rich, easily portable snack has been enjoyed by scientists and astronauts aboard the Mir Space Station and International Space Station since 1996.
So, next time you bite into that tasty chunk of dried meat, just remember: you’re taking part in a culinary tradition that links the ancient Andean peoples with the space-faring pioneers of the 21st century.
Sources and Further Reading:
- Andean Peoples by John V. Murra (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
- Ch’arki (Wikipedia)
- Ch’arki: The Original Jerky Method of Preserving Meat by K. Kris Hirst (ThoughtCo)
- Encyclopedia of the Incas, edited by Gary Urton and Adriana von Hagen, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
- Inca Cuisine (Wikipedia)
- Inca Food & Agriculture by Mark Cartwright (Ancient History Encyclopaedia)
- Jerky (Wikipedia)
- Smuggling Beef Jerky to Space (SpaceRef)
- Social Studies Curriculum: Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas (Peabody Museum of Natural History)
- The Incas by Terence N. D’Altroy, Wiley-Blackwell, 2003.
- The Oxford Handbook of the Incas, edited by Sonia Alconini and R. Alan Covey, Oxford University Press, 2018.