On a Chilean archipelago of lush islands called Chiloé, archeologists discovered a six-thousand-year-old cooking pit. It contained skeletal remains of nutrias, sea lions, birds, fish, and whales, alongside shells from scallops, snails, abalones, mussels, and clams. These were the vestiges of an early curanto, one of the most ancient recipes still being prepared today.
The word curanto means “stony ground,” and it begins with a meter-deep hole. Far from a solo activity, families or groups line the hole with rocks and a light a wood fire that heats the stones. Curanto is more of a preparation style than a strict recipe, and the ingredients vary from century to century, pit to pit. These days, it’s typically a miscellany of shellfish, smoked meat, chicken, longaniza (sausage), and potatoes.
The last ingredient tends to be the most interesting. The Chilotés are masters of the potato, cultivating hundreds of varieties, and a proper curanto features multiple tuber varieties prepared three ways. Alongside whole-steamed potatoes, they make chapaleles (potato dumplings) and milcaos (potato pancakes). South America is the birthplace of the potato, and to locals, the potatoes sold around the world seem bland and oddly uniform.
After loading ingredients into the cavity, Chileans cover the hole with wild rhubarb leaves, damp sacks, and packed dirt. As the shellfish cooks, the shells open and release juices that sizzle on the hot rocks and help steam the rest of the food. Several hours later, the heat and steam has created a piping hot feast. Everything emerges slicked in juices and oils, and since the large pits lend themselves to feeding crowds, curanto tends to enliven family gatherings and special occasions.
Fire-pit cooking can feel like a connection to a more primal past. But while pit-cooking techniques abound, especially in South America, curanto may connect to the furthest past of them all.