Chicharron and the Virgen de Urkupiña Festival




Chicharrón, or roast pork, is typically fried, not baked, in Bolivia. It hails from Cochabamba, a city famous for its many delicious (and usually huge) meals. One of the best times to visit Cochabamba to see colorful Bolivian culture in full swing is during the Festival of the Virgin of Urkupiña, which takes place near the city of Cochabamba in a town called Quillacollo in mid-August of each year (usually on or about the 15th of the month). Tourists can take it as a day trip, leaving in the morning and returning at night to the city of Cochabamba.

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, the indigenous people of Bolivia were animists, and many still are today. That means they worship inanimate objects, natural features, or living birds and animals, as gods. After the arrival of the Spaniards and their efforts to convert the indigenous peoples to Christianity, the latter simply "melded" their beliefs, mixing their nature-born deities with the invisible God and Virgin Mary, of whom the Spanish had spoken.

The indigenous cultures of Bolivia have always been very visual. It was harder for them to believe in something they couldn't see as they didn't typically deal in the abstract in their own lives. The name Urkupiña actually means "on the mountain" and Quillacollo means "mountain of the moon" in the Quechua language.

The story goes that a little girl was assigned by her father to watch over his herd of llamas. Over a period of time, she returned home several times telling him that she had seen the Virgin Mary. When he asked her "where?" she would point to the mountain and say "urkupiña!" so eventually some of the village men followed her up to the mountain and, according to this legend, they arrived just in time to see the Virgin Mary glowing and ascending into heaven.

Once she had disappeared, they found a small statue of Mary had been left in her place among the rocks. It was taken to the San Idelfonsino chapel. Worshippers take 3 days off in mid-August to celebrate and worship the Virgin of Urkupiña (the Virgin from the Mountain). There is much dancing, lots of live music, religious processions, pilgrimages on foot from Cochabamba to Quillacollo, and in true Cochabambino style, lots and lots of food.

During this festival, the streets fill with street vendors and hundreds of food stalls, many of which cook "fast foods" that are fried such as chicharrón because they are easy to make in large batches and serve hot to passers-by. They are also easy to serve as fingerfoods so that those who are dancing or making the pilgrimage can eat as they walk. In fact, chicharrón can be found at almost any festival in Bolivia.

To be clear, the word "chicharrón" refers to any meat that has been overly grilled, baked, or fried so as to have become toasty or crunchy. In some countries (even in parts of Bolivia) people refer to fried pork rinds as chicharrón as well, but this recipe is for Chicarrón de Cerdo or Chicharrón de Chancho, both of which mean "Pork Chicharrón" and include large chunks of oil-roasted pork, and not just the rind.

Chicharrón is typically served with baked or fried plantains, boiled or roasted potatoes or chuños (a dehydrated potato), and mote, which is a type of Andean corn that has huge white kernels (it's very similar to hominy, but even larger). The recipe below will include mote.

If you're being served at a table, on a plate, it would be served with a small side salad of lettuce, onions and tomatoes drizzled with oil and vinegar. But chicharrón, oft being a hand-held food, is most frequently accompanied by just mote or potatoes.

Ingredients:

4 pounds of pork ribs
1 pound of mote corn
2 tbsp. ground black pepper
2 tbsp. ground cumin
oil (as necessary, see below)
salt to taste

Preparation

The mote corn is hard and has a rather hard hull so it must be soaked in water overnight the night before you plan to serve your meal. Soak it in 4-6 cups of water or enough to completely cover it.

Overnight, the corn will release some of its starch into the water, which will become kind of opaque and feel a bit slimy. The next day, cook the mote in the same water for 45 minutes to 1 hour until it is soft. Usually the kernels will eventually split and flare open, after which you can test for doneness by picking one out of the water with a fork and when it is cool enough, you can squeeze it or do a taste-test. The corn should be soft and with roughly the consistency or chewiness of rice.

While the mote is cooking, prepare your pork by chopping it into large pieces, about 3-5 inches in size each, including the bones which you may also cut.

With a sharp knife, make slices horizontally across the rind, then criss-cross in the other direction.

Mix the salt, pepper and cumin together with a fork or whisk. This will serve as rub. With your hands, season the pork by rubbing the seasoning all over each piece of meat, ensuring some of it remains inside the cracks or slices you made on the rind.

Set the pork aside and let it become infused with the flavors of the seasoning for 15-20 minutes. Then place all of the pork pieces into a large cooking pot and with sufficient water to cover all of the meat. Cover the pot, and cook this until all of the water has cooked off completely.

Once the water has cooked off, which should take an hour or so, allow the pieces of pork to continue cooking (they should now be frying), moving them around to be sure they don't burn and each piece of pork fries. If there isn't sufficient fat on the pork, you can add small amounts of oil. The important thing is to fry the pork now that is has cooked through so that the pork rind will become toasted and crispy and the meat will look like it has been grilled.

You don't want to "deep fry" the meat, so don't completely cover it in oil, just use enough oil (1/2 cup at a time, for example) to keep it frying without burning and sticking to the pan. Also be sure ALL pieces get toasted, so move them around a lot until they are the meat is fully browned and cooked and the rind is crispy.

Many Bolivian foods, including chicharrón, are served with a hot sauce called llajua. It's very easy to make and you can make it while the pork is cooking. Simply remove the seeds from 4-6 hot chile peppers (fresh, not bottled or dehydrate), and blend in a blender with 2-3 roma tomatoes, 1/2 cup cilantro (we make it with an herb called quirquiña but it can't be found in the US), 1/2 red onion, and some salt.



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