Peruvian

A Comforting One-Pot Chicken Pasta, by Way of Peru

On sopa seca and its many delicious identities.

March 21, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland

If I want to get my husband John excited about dinner, all I have to do is mention the word carapulcra. This rich, homey stew is made from pieces of sun-dried potatoes that are rehydrated and simmered with chunks of pork in a spicy broth. The sauce is perfumed with cloves, white wine, and Port. Thickened with ground peanuts, it gets an added touch of lusciousness from a very unusual (at least in Peruvian cuisine) secret ingredient: a bar of chocolate.

Carapulcra rarely makes an appearance at Peruvian restaurants in the United States, so it's a real treat whenever I announce to John that I’m preparing it. I blame its absence on restaurant menus to the fact that it looks like dog food. It’s a member of that special society of dishes that objectively don't photograph well, but taste heavenly.

I frequently browse Peruvian recipes, YouTube videos, and blogs to learn about different ways to make some of my favorite dishes, or even to discover new ones I’ve never heard of. I once saw a recipe for carapulcra in my feed and decided to take a look to see how the author made what has become one of my signature dishes. As with most online recipes, I scrolled to the bottom of the page to see what readers had to say.

Reading this comments section threw open the doors to a side of Peruvian cuisine that was entirely new to me. The number one complaint from most of the readers was that the author suggested serving carapulcra with rice. Apparently, this was entirely wrong. Some readers almost saw this to be a patriotic transgression. (We have strong nationalistic attachments to our food in Peru.) This was alarming to me: I had always eaten carapulcra with white rice. I didn’t know that there was another way to eat it.

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“You are expanding my food world! I love the stories connected with your recipes and they sound so delicious I want to try them all. You always leave me wanting another recipe from you, this time carapulcra...”
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I kept scrolling through the comments and found one, in particular, that offered an explanation. The reader was from Chincha, a town just south of Lima in a region called the Sur Chico (the “Little South”). This reader explained that in his hometown, people never ate carapulcra with rice. They ate it with something called sopa seca, which literally translates to “dry soup.”

Sopa seca consists of spaghetti, pureed basil, chicken, and broth simmered together in a clay pot until the pasta absorbs all the liquid and becomes tender. The dish received its name because it really does look like a dried up, herbaceous chicken noodle soup.

You may notice that two elements in this dish are common in Italian cuisine: spaghetti and basil. This isn’t mere coincidence. In the 1800s, Italian immigrants settled in the areas around Chincha to work in agriculture or guano harvesting. These Italian immigrants, who mainly hailed from Liguria (the birthplace of pesto), brought their food customs with them.

The legend holds that local Afro-Peruvian chinchanos saw their new neighbors consuming pasta with pesto and tried to recreate it themselves. However, they were a little perplexed as to how to actually cook the noodles, so they decided to cook it like rice—everything together in the same pot. Little by little, the dish evolved into its present incarnation.


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While researching sopa seca, I discovered something important about carapulcra as well. In Chincha, it is always made with fresh potatoes. While it also features ground peanuts, it doesn’t have all of the fancy extras like Port, wine, and chocolate. The type of carapulcra I made and ate was the limeño variety.

Besides discovering that not all Peruvians ate the same kind of carapulcra, I also learned that in Chincha there is no such thing as carapulcra without sopa seca. They are as inseparable as a pizza to its crust. The combination is such an iconic part of the local cuisine that it even has its own name: mancha pechos, or “chest stainer.” You can probably guess why.

This combination of dishes is particularly popular at important gatherings like baptisms, birthdays, and weddings. In fact, it’s the last of these types of events that is said to have been the birthplace of this dish. According to local lore, when a couple got married, each side of the family brought its own signature dish. One side brought carapulcra, the other brought sopa seca, and just as the young couple exchanged vows, both of these dishes became perpetually bound in culinary matrimony.

While most Peruvians from the Sur Chico region, which includes Chincha, agree that carapulcra is made with fresh potatoes and that it is never complete without a side of sopa seca, there is some controversy as to the precise preparation of the noodles. As I was comparing recipes online, I encountered the same types of arguments that surrounded the proper presentation of carapulcra. There were those who insisted that sopa seca had no ají (Peruvian chiles) and needed to be mild because the carapulcra was already spicy. There were those who proclaimed that sopa seca included carrots and those who thought such an inclusion to be blasphemous. There were even arguments as to what to do with the chicken, with some advocating for shredded poached chicken while others claimed that this dish required bone-in chicken quarters.

The more I researched, the more confusing things became. Apparently, there are different micro-regional versions of sopa seca that can include such things as dry botija olives, raisins, hard-boiled eggs, and wine. I read comment threads where individuals from the town of Cañete would battle those from Lunahuaná on how to authentically prepare this “dry soup,” which also goes by the names of sopa bruta (“stupid soup”) and sopa chola (“Indian soup”).

I decided to develop a recipe that reflects the version of this dish you'd find in Chincha. I call for bite-size pieces of chicken, eliminating the extra step of poached chicken while also making it easier to serve and eat. I like carrots in many Peruvian stews and think it adds a sprinkle of color against the green background of these noodles. I include ají panca in the recipe, which adds a smoldering heat. However, feel free to omit it, especially if you want to eat this the way chinchanos do (with a side of carapulcra).

Just be sure to wear a bib so that this “chest stainer” doesn’t end up on your shirt.

Have you ever had sopa seca? Tell, tell in the comments below.

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  • weshook
    weshook
  • Jahaida
    Jahaida
  • Carlos C. Olaechea
    Carlos C. Olaechea
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I was born in Peru to a Limeño father and a Texan mother. We moved to Miami when I was five, and I grew up in the "Kendall-suyo" neighborhood—often called the 5th province of the Inca Empire because of its large Peruvian population. I've been writing about food since I was 11 years old, and in 2016 I received a master's degree in Gastronomy from Boston University. A travel columnist at Food52, I'm currently based in Hollywood, Florida—another vibrant Peruvian community—where I am a writer, culinary tour guide, and consultant.

4 Comments

weshook March 22, 2019
You are expanding my food world! I love the stories connected with your recipes and they sound so delicious I want to try them all. You always leave me wanting another recipe from you, this time carapulcra...
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. March 25, 2019
Thank you so much. I'll see if I can get a recipe for carapulcra chinchana up. I've never made that style of carapulcra, just the lima variety (which is also very good).
 
Jahaida March 22, 2019
This was an amazing read, I’m Peruvian as well. Born in Lima and raised in Miami/Hialeah since I was 4. I now live in GA and struggle to find Peruvian food here, well at least to my liking (yes, we are very picky with our food). This recipe is going in my favs right away, please continue to send some more!
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. March 25, 2019
I tell people all the time that the best Peruvian food in the US is in South Florida, and restaurants are becoming more and more diverse down here. I am so glad you liked the article