Carapulcra, an ancient Andean dish
I crave food with a lot of flavor. One dish that delivers is Carapulcra, a Peruvian potato, peanut and pepper stew. If you do an internet search you'll find a dish that has changed over time, impacted by the colonization of Peru and the introduction of new ingredients from Europe, and is often referred to as a creole dish because of that newer interpretation. I wanted to strip it back, imagine the dish before colonial times, but also create a vegetarian version. At its base it must contain these ingredients to achieve the flavor and texture of a true Carapulcra: mani (peanuts, native to South America), aji mirasol (dried aji amarillo, or Peruvian yellow pepper, native to the Andes), and aji panca (aka aji colorado, or Peruvian Panca pepper, native to the Andes).
Carapulcra is an ancient Andean dish that has been prepared for centuries, possibly a millennia, by both Quechua and Aimara peoples. The original term for this dish was "qala phurk'a," which means a stew or soup made with hot stones. In simpler times, and sometimes still, hot stones are placed at the bottom of a clay pot to bring water to a boil and cook the papa seca, or "dried potatoes," slowly, with the rest of the ingredients. The potatoes would become rehydrated and tender all over again. It was a genius was to extend the shelf-life of the potato (many months to years) and it gives the vegetable a new and delicious texture and flavor.
Before colonization, llama or alpaca meats would have been featured in the dish, but I also imagine that in more ancient times (when we did not consume as much meat or perhaps no meat at all) it would have still been satisfying without it. Today, both pork and chicken are the star proteins. The addition of pork, in particular, adds a smoky and salty flavor but what would happen if we omit the meat all together? How can we develop the same complexity of flavor if we de-colonize this dish and make it vegetarian?
Recently, I interviewed a family friend about quinoa. We were discussing ways in which she consumed it as a child and she mentioned to me that her mother used to prepare Carapulcra with quinoa in addition to meat. I had never heard of this! I was fascinated by idea of using it instead of using meat at all. I knew that there had to be a way to build more flavor without it. I called my friend and she gave me a few tips that would really bring out the best in all the ingredients.
Toast the papa seca in a dry pan before soaking, to bring out more flavor and create a smoky flavor.
Buy raw peanuts and toast those too.
Grind the peanuts by hand after toasting them so you leave some texture intact to enhance the sauce.
Give a little heat/flame to the aji mirasol as well, again to add a smoky flavor.
I had never seen raw peanuts in any market I'd been to, and I was not having any luck finding them online, so I asked
her where she has purchased them in the past. She pointed me in the direction of a large Asian market that was not too far from one of the Latino markets I go to to buy my Peruvian products. The market is huge and overwhelming but I found them with just a little help from the staff. They were labeled as "raw peanuts (blanched)." Easy enough! They appear very light in color as you'll see in the photo. I simply toasted them in a dry pan, as I did the papa seca, until they got a little color on them (see photos below) and smelled yummy.
I put my quinoa on to cook (above) while I toasted the nuts and dried peppers. I have to say, her tips absolutely made all the difference between my former recipe for this dish and this new one.
In order to build depth of flavor you'll need to do a little extra. This is definitely not a dish that you can whip up in a half hour. It takes some forethought, especially since you should soak your papa seca overnight (at the minimum an hour). You can see how the dried potatoes look golden in color and they are hard like little stones (below). I have tried in the past to soak for only a few hours but I find soaking them overnight gives the best results. It's important to agitate the potatoes a bit every once and a while and change the water a few times to take some of the bitterness away. I saved the last water I used to soak the potatoes in to utilize later in building the cooking liquid (about 3 cups) for the stew.
The last thing I did to pre-prep was slightly blacken the dried chili pepper, aji mirasol (above) and ground it by hand. After blackening it, I opened up the chili and removed most of the seeds and veins (if you want more spicy heat, you can leave them in). I then crumbled the pepper up, added some hot water to my moltero or molcajete (mortar), and ground it into a paste by hand. I then added garlic and mashed it all together, making the beginning of my aderezo or base paste. I believe this added more depth of flavor too!
When I think about how my ancestors would have made this in years past -- using a batán to make the sauce, heating up the stones to put in the pot, using ingredients that alone took effort to preserve (drying, dehydrating, toasting) -- it makes recreating something like this so much more meaningful. So, amig@s, I leave you with this special vegetarian/vegan recipe that takes a little while to make but the results are absolutely worth it! Buen provecho!
Vegetarian Carapulcra - 4 servings
7-8oz papa seca (half a 15 oz bag), toasted
2 cups white quinoa, cooked
3/4 cup raw mani/peanuts, toasted
2 tablespoons cooking oil of your choice
1/2 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, sliced or roughly chopped
2 aji mirasol (peppers), slightly blackened
2 tablespoons hot water
1 heaping tablespoon aji panca paste
1 tsp salt plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon oregano (optional, I used it)
3 cups potato water (saved from soaking potatoes)
1-2 tablespoons red wine (optional, I didn't use it)
PAPA SECA: Toast (at medium high flame) for about 5 minutes in a dry pan. Place and bowl and cover with about 3 cups of water. Leave to soak overnight. Agitate the water from time to time and change the water 1-2 times. The next day, when you drain them, save the water (about 3 cups).
MANI/PEANUTS: Toast raw peanuts (at low medium flame) for about 4 minutes, moving them around to make sure they do not burn. Let cool. Using a mortar and pestle grind into a chunky powder or into a paste, your preference! (Optional, use a food processor instead!)
QUINOA: Take one cup of white quinoa and wash by submerging in water, rubbing the quinoa in the water with your hands and then drain the water. The water will become milky. You are washing the bitter saponins off of the seeds. Repeat this at least 2 more times. Place in a pot of boiling water (3 cups). Cook for about 15 minutes. Strain the quinoa and discard water. Add 2 more cups of water to the pot and bring to a boil again and add the partially cooked quinoa, allowing to cook for about 5 more minutes. Let cool. Do not discard the water this time.
AJI MIRASOL and GARLIC: Blacken the peppers slightly over a flame. Crumble into a mortar and add 2 tablespoons of hot water. With the pestle, grind until it becomes a paste. Add garlic cloves and grind until it is all incorporated. (Optional: use a single cup grinder blender or a food processor instead.)
Preparation of dish
In a deep pan or pot, heat up cooking oil and saute onions until translucent.
Add aji mirasol/garlic paste and aji panca paste and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute.
Add spices and herbs and saute until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Add saved potato water, 1 teaspoon salt, and papa seca. Cover and let simmer for 45 minutes.
After potatoes are tender, add peanut butter/powder and stir in. Add cooked quinoa. Let simmer for 10 more minutes to allow for the peanut butter to thicken the sauce. (Optional, add wine if using.)
Adjust seasoning if needed.
This dish is often served with white rice and boiled yuca. Another option is to serve with just the boiled yuca and sweet potato.