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You Say Jerky, I Say Charqui
The role of meat in Andean food culture
On the one-year anniversary of this newsletter, I reflect on the plant-forward diet of my Quechua ancestors in Peru’s Andes Mountains.
The Plant-Based Andean Diet
Before colonization introduced livestock to the Americas, Quechua communities thrived on a plant-based diet of crops they cultivated in the Andes Mountains: quinoa, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, hot peppers, and coca leaves plus plenty of foraged herbs like huacatay, a wild mint.
Animal protein native to the area—alpaca, llama, vicuña, cuy, game, and river fish—was reserved for special celebrations, ceremonies, or rituals. And when added to a dish, it was usually in small amounts.
Today, North America and the rest of the world seem to be spouting the benefits of a plant-based diet that the Inca practiced centuries ago. Two authors I admire say it quite simply:
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” — Michael Pollan
“You eat more plants, you eat less other stuff, you live longer.” — Mark Bittman
Food Preservation and Charqui
In You Say Potato, I Say Papa, I wrote about the connection between food preservation and food security:
To bake or boil potatoes, Andean families depend on a successful potato harvest. But what if a drought leaves little or nothing to harvest? Enter the mighty chuño, a freeze-dried potato with a 10-year shelf life. Quechua communities make chuño by exposing potatoes to the warm sunny days and cold nights. The process removes the water, making the potato lighter and easier to transport and store.
The Inca also dehydrated salted meat at high-elevations to preserve it, tear it into small pieces, and carry it on long journeys for sustenance. The Quechua word for dehydrated meat is “ch’arki” and the Spanish word is “charqui.”
Charqui is popular throughout the Andes, from Peru, to Bolivia, to Chile, to Argentina. And if charqui sounds like jerky to you, you are correct. Not only is it the same food, but the word “jerky” is actually derived from the word “charqui.”
Dehydrated meat like charqui is not unique to the Andes, of course. In North America, Indigenous peoples have been making jerky since pre-colonial times. And you’ll find examples of dehydrated meats in African, Asian, and European cuisines.
As a vegan, I gave up traditional charqui but have since found some great plant-based alternatives. First, there are off-the-shelf products like Louisville Vegan Jerky, which I find at my local supermarket. Then, there are recipes like Mark Bittman’s tofu jerky which calls for marinating and dehydrating strips of tofu in an oven.
In TASTE’s The Vegan Jerky Industrial Complex, Priya Krishna wrote:
In an era of beef cynicism, every plant has jerky potential. Glance at any higher-end grocery-store snack shelf, and you’ll find jerky made of watermelon, mushrooms, coconut, and…kelp.
So even as a vegan, I continue to enjoy the flavors of charqui.
For example, olluquito con charqui, a tuber and charqui dish from Peru inspired a potato and jerky stew with an onion and aji amarillo aderezo, plus stock and mint. It tastes of the Andes, without any of the animal protein.
Cultural Identity and the End of Meat
When I turned vegan, I asked myself:
Would I lose my cultural identity by giving up the dishes I grew up with like lomo saltado (beef stir fry), ceviche, pan con chicharron (pork sandwich), or aji de gallina (chicken stew)?
For Latinx people, food defines who we are. Recipes are passed down across generations. And many, like myself, learned to cook from our mothers. Can we still honor this heritage if we give up meat?
¡Si se puede! / Yes we can!
It turns out that going vegan, and cooking with plant-forward ingredients, brought me closer to my ancestors’ culinary traditions. And by veganizing traditional Peruvian dishes, I realized that the soul of dish is not in the animal protein, but in its spices, flavors, textures, and origin story.
Today, it seems that North America is going through a similar identity crisis.
First, in 2020 The New York Times proclaimed: The End of Meat is Here.
If you care about the working poor, about racial justice, and about climate change, you have to stop eating animals.
Then, in 2022 The New York Times pondered: What Does the End of Beef Mean for Our Sense of Self?
When it comes to America’s legacy of Manifest Destiny, there’s perhaps no meal more symbolic than a bleeding steak. So who are we now that we’re consuming less red meat?
If you are eating less meat these days, I’d love to hear what challenges you’ve faced and how that has affected your cultural identity. Please share in the comments below.
After one year of “La Yapa,” I am steadfast in my mission to explore Peru’s food & drink culture, through a vegan lens, and to continue veganizing Peru’s comida criolla.
To learn more about the multicultural heritage that shapes Peru’s creole cuisine, I invite you to listen to the TMI podcast E89 — Learning about Peruvian cuisine with Nico Vera, where I have a wonderful conversation with host Christine Pittman.
Over the past dozen months, I’ve looked at the culinary diversity of Peru’s cuisine, showcased specific Andean ingredients, and shared personal stories:
Perú Negro / Black Peru—The food, music, and poetry of Afro-Peruvians
From Liguria to Lima—The culinary legacy of Italian immigrants in Peru
You Say Potato, I Say Papa—On the past and future of Peru’s ancestral tuber
You Say Corn, I Say Sara—The food and drink culture of maize in the Andes
Sara and Susana—When Mom cooked with the famed Afro-Peruvian singer
Sipping Spring in Tokyo—A round of cherry blossom pisco cocktails
I am also honored that Substack awarded me and my newsletter “La Yapa” a runner-up spot in their 2022 Food Writer’s Intensive.
Here’s to another year of sharing Peru’s food & drink culture with you.