Head Deep In Pan Chuta
By Carol L. Bowman
As we maneuvered our way through the crowded aisles of San Pedro Central Market in Cuzco, Peru, I thought the 11,000 feet altitude of this former Inca capital had reduced my brain to mush. Amid six-foot high piles of large round disks of bread, two feet in diameter and at least 3 inches thick, a white, wide brimmed hat with a fancy purple bow sat atop the mounds. Then the hat moved, tipped this way and that. I saw nothing that resembled a human being in the vicinity of the head gear.
Could it be magic? I had just left the stand where a woman, a practicing healer known as a curandera, sold everything from dead llama fetuses to strange concoctions for curing ailments or bringing on curses. Snooping, I edged closer to the heaps and caught the eyes of the hat’s owner, peeking out above the flour Frisbees, head-deep in pan chuta.
I looked down both sides of the aisle. Stacks and stacks of this leavened delicacy crowded everything else from view and the aroma of fresh baked bread with a hint of cinnamon and anise demanded a taste. We bought a disk for five Peruvian soles (under $2 US). Umm! Raised wheat dough, sweetened with sugar, enriched with eggs and flavored with spices and herbs.
The secret seemed to be in the baking, as a light outer crust hid the moist, succulent center. I could get hooked on this sweet bread. The Cuzqueños apparently already know chuta addiction, as before market day’s end, all these stacks would disappear, ready for tomorrow’s delivery.
I began to see Cuzco’s feast of these large, thick circles everywhere. Ladies in their traditional Inca dress with bolero hats sold them on the street. I noticed them piled high at the bus and train station, and outside museums and shops more bread appeared.
Every day, the city receives thousands of loaves from Oropesa, a former Royal Inca Center located about 11 miles outside of Cuzco center. In colonial times, mule teams laden with baskets of fresh bread left the village at midnight to guarantee that the loaves would arrive in Cuzco before dawn. Oropesa continues to be the exclusive supplier of this unique confection for all of Cuzco. Dispersed around the town, 40 traditional ovens bake the bread until a golden brown crust forms.
After the conquest, the Spanish realized that this valley provided excellent cultivation plots for Spanish wheat. Bread remained a key component of the European diet and after the female line of the colonial Spanish monarchy granted this land to descendants of the Inca, Oropesa became the center of bread making. Today this distinction remains, as 40% of all entrepreneurs there dedicate their lives to this trade.
Cuzco’s love affair with this wheat wheel is deeply tied to its local culture. Chuta, a Quechua word, loosely translated, means a complex relationship that places value on something that travels over distances and symbolizes warmth and affection. For this reason, pan chuta remains the standard hostess gift to bring when a guest goes to a Cuzqueñan home, signifying the respect that one has for the people he or she is visiting.
Used in the rituals of courtship and those surrounding death, relatives take pan chuta to cemeteries to nourish the souls of the deceased. Witnesses reward religious pilgrims who bear the weight of floats carried during processions with special, double-layered chuta along the way. It represents the burden some carry for the benefit of all and unifies the participants.
Cuzqueños begin every day with a piece of this delicious round and a cup of mate de coca tea or a glass of maca, a juice pressed from a tuber, used for its powers of relieving aches of rheumatism. Now I understood how those Indian women, who sit on the hard, cold concrete market floor for hours at a time, can get up at the end of the day. Maca and pan chuta—a daily combination to take away the body’s pains and provide pleasure to the taste buds and tummy; I may have to move to Peru.
On our way to Puno, we spied a roadside brick oven in Oropesa and stopped. The bakers were reaching deep into the adobe-brick chamber with long handled flat boards to retrieve golden brown beauties. The women safeguard the recipes and the men never reveal the type of woods used or the required oven temperature for perfect pan chuta. A woman ran out with several piping hot rounded loaves, fresh from the oven. We nibbled on torn pieces, and savored the secrets. I just needed a glass of maca to think I had gone to heaven; at 11,500 feet, I was pretty close.
Thanks to “Cuzco’s Traditional Hand-Made Bread” by Herbert Edgardo Huanami Jara and David Knowelton for brief historical information.