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Taste Raider: Ch’arki and Chuños (Part 1)

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.

Tomb Raider Horizons’ new food-centric feature, Taste Raider, will explore some of the dishes and food traditions seen in the Tomb Raider games and spin-off media.

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.

Inca-style meat and potatoes, ch’arki and chuños (Image credit: Tomb Raider Horizons)

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:

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.

Tune into the next edition of Taste Raider to learn more about the humble, but satisfying, chuño.


Sources and Further Reading:

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