Saturday, June 25, 2011

Potosí Bolivia - Cerro Rico, The Mountain That Eats Men

Potosi, Cerro Rico, Bolivia

Considered one of the highest cities in the world at an elevation of 4,090 meters (13,500 ft), Potosí is the capital of the department of Potosí in Bolivia, a South American country located in the lanlocked area between Brazil to the north east, Paraguay and Argentina to the south, Chile by the south west, and Peru by the west.  

It lies on the Andean mountanous region, and prior to Spanish colonization,  Bolivia was part of the majestic Incan Empire.  The Spanish Empire conquered the region in the 16th century.  The mountain was known in Quechua as "Sumac Urku", which translates as beautiful mountain.  

The city has thrived for hundreds of years beaneath the Cerro de Potosi, often reffered to as Cerro Rico (rich mountain), as it is rich in silver ore, which is the reason for Potosí's historical importance.  The mountain has been exploited for almost 500 years, and it was the major supply of silver for Spain during the period of the New World Spanish Empire.  

Potosí was a mithical land of riches having supplied according to official records over 45,000 short tons (41,000 metric tons) of pure silver from 1556 to 1783.  Indian Incan laborers, forced by Francisco de Toledo were enslaved and made to mine deep in the mountain for the precious commodity that was to make Spain wealthy.  

In addition to the indegenous labor force called the mitayos, that had to transport the ore up the shafts to the mouth of the mine, the Spanish imported 1,500 to 2,000 African slaves per year.  An estimated 30,000 African slaves were taken to Potosí during the colonial era.  The African slaves were forced to work as acémulas humanas (human mules).  Since mules would die after a couple of months pushing the mills, the colonists replaced the four mules with twenty African slaves.  

It is estimated that over eight million people have died in the mines, not simply from brutal labor, but by mercury poisoning and the inhalation of silicosis which damages the lungs.  

Today over 9000 Indios work in miner owned cooperatives, in search of any remaining minerals within Cerro Rico.  Sadly, among the workers are many child laborers often as young as ten years old.  They work in a maze of over 20,000 tunnels.  Fatal accidents are often and most miners fall victim to the black lung disease and die by age 40.  It is known as "The Mountain That Eats Men".  

To gain strength enough to go deep into the mines, the miners chew on coca leaves, which will give them the energy to stay down often for up to eighteen hours at a time.  The coca leaves help with controlling fatigue and hunger.  

Due to exhaustive mining, the mountain has shrunk from it's original glory by a few meters and there is very little mineral left.  The miners meticulously search and pick for the last few remaining "veins" of silver and as a result, the mountain is in danger of collapsing making the ardous work extremely dangerous and life threatening.

Imposed by the Spanish rule, the governors of the mine struck fear into the workers if they refused to work.  And according to their Incan beliefs, God does not exist deep below.  So the Spaniards played on that idea, and made them to believe that if they did not work in the mines "El Dios" the God of the underworld would punish them.  
"El Tío", the lord of the underworld venerated and respected
deep in Cerro Rico, Potosi, Bolivia.

In Quechua the Incan locals did not have the "d" sound, so they pronounced  "El Dios" with a "El Tio".  To enter the mine, they enter into the realms of the malevolent being or el diablo (the devil) where El Tío, or uncle presides.  If an accident or collapse occurs, they say it has happened only because the Tío has been angered.  But if a miner is lucky to find a "plentiful vein", then it is due to El Tío's blessings.  He is the lord of the underworld.  "What happens inside depends on Mother Earth and El Tío".  

Everyday, before beginning their work, the miners make offerings to a statue in the form of a goat with horns representative of El Tîo.  They offer coca leaves, water, fruits, cigarretes, colored paper, bottles of grain alchohol, incense, and prayers in hopes that he will spare their lives.  

El Tío rules over the mines, simultaneously offering protection and destruction.  At the openeings of the shafts, at regular intervals the villagers of Potosí offer a sacrifice to the devil in the mines, ritually slaughtering a llama and smearing the animal's blood at the entrance to the mine in hopes of calming El Tío and diverting him from claiming more lives.  

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Hyderabadi Biryani

Hyderabadi Mutton Biryani
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2011 All Rights Reserved

When most people whom love South Indian cuisine  think of one dish that by heart and sentiment stands out, without exaggeration, it is Biryani.  Hyderabadi Biryani,  to be more exact.  It is a dish most popular in the great state of Andhra Pradesh.

Rice, the staple of indian cuisine has been dressed in gala.  Nothing was overlooked in the creation of one of the most fragrant and elegant rice dishes in the world.  

The dish consists of the most prized rice of them all: basmati, and it includes a meat such as mutton, lamb, or chicken, and even fish or prawns, onions, eggs, chiles, and an exotic array of spices that perfume the dish to a level of intoxicating fragrance, that will make any person that comes in contact with the dish,  come back for more.  

The spices may include of the highest quality nutmeg, mace, cumin, pepper, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaves, coriander, mint leaves, ginger, and garlic.  And to cook it all and to add more to its richness, a drizzle of ghee (clarified butter), that makes all of the ingredients come together in heavenly perfection.  

Its history is impressive and rich as it comes from a long line of royalty.  Its origins can be traced back to the great kings of Andhra: the Nizams (meaning Administrator of the Realm), the title of the native sovereigns of Hyderabad State.    The style of cooking is believed to have arrived to India from Persia, during the Mogul empire.  The word biryani is derived from Farsi "birian" which means fried before cooking.  The cooking method itself is called "dum".  

In the 1700's, during the Mogul empire, Lucknow was known as Awadh, and from there people cooked biryani and called it Awadh biryani.  In 1856, during the British rule,  Asafa Jahi was crowned as the Nizam-ul-mulk and only ruler of Hyderabad.  

Seven Nizams ruled Hyderabad for two centuries.  And the Nizams (Azaf Jahi) rulers were great patrons of literature, art, architecture, culture, jewelry and Rich Food.  Since then biryani spread all over Andhra and the rest of the subcontinent, with each region making its own variation. 

For the most exotic and rich biryani experience, a leg of telangana goat is cut into pieces and marinated in a paste that consists of papaya, yoghurt and spices.  Afterwards, the meat is cooked in ghee.  The rice is also fried in ghee which brings out the addictive nutty flavor and also roasts the outside starch layer gelatinizing it.  The rice is then boiled until half done in spices.  In the next step, the meat and the rice are layered first with rice then meat and so forth in an earthen pot called a handi.  An interlayer of onions, condiments, spices, and rose water are added which give it a flowery and herbal aroma.   The handi is then sealed with a cover made of dough and then cooked slowly over coals.  The seal is broken only when ready to enjoy.

For practicality, there are two types of cooking methods: Kutchi (raw) biryani, and Pukki (cooked) biryani.  For kutchi biryani, raw marinated meat is layered with raw rice.  For pukki biryani, cooked meat and cooked rice are layered and then finished cooking for a short while in the handi pot.  Hyderabadi biryani is meticulously prepared in the kutchi style which takes a lot longer but is well worth the long wait  in gold.  

Lucknow and Hyderabad compete for the biryani crown.  But only the Hyderabadi biryani, can walk away with the gold as it is now without dispute known all over the world.  Food critics in many countries vow their testimonies and defend the Hyderabadi biryani without rest.  

Due to its proximity to India, Hyderabadi biryani is exported by flight to Dubai and the United Arab Emirates  among other countries.  The biryani is cooked in Hyderabad and shipped overnight so that the people in those countries can satisfy their cravings of biryani.  

If you are traveling to Hyderabad, there are many restaurants that specialize in  biryani, but as in every city there are a few that stand out as the best.  Make sure you visit the all famous Paradise in Secunderabad, Hyderabad House in Hyderabad or Sri Kanya in the Panjagutta neighborhood. 

To sample dishes of a country is to appreciate and know the splendor and history of its culture.  And Hyderabad has many gems of cuisine that stand out.  Biryani is only one among hundreds.  

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Peyote - Call Of The Shaman

For over three thousand years, hikuri has been consumed by Mexico's native tribes.  Most notably the Huichol and the Tarahumara or Rarámuri.  Hikuri is the name of a cacti that is known more by its Nahuatl name peyotl or peyote.  Its scientific name is Lophophora williamsii, and the use of the plant is a pillar in the Tarahumara and Huichol tradition.  

Deep along the Sierra Madre mountains in the Chihuahuan desert, in the sacred land of Copper Canyon or La Barranca del Cobre, the peyote cati grow wild among the scrub, especially where there is limestone.  It flowers pink blossoms from March through May, and sometimes as late as September.  The cati take up to four years before a small "button" can be seen just below the dirt's surface.

Most societies today prohibit the use of this cacti that when ingested, produces a hallucinogenic effect, and the plant contains psychoactive alkaloids, particularly mescaline.  But the native indians of Mexico have been drinking the very potent wine made from the plant.  As per their belief,  it is the way to enter the spirit world and summon the gods.

The Tarahumara believe in everlasting life after death and in the existence of benevolent and malevolent beings.  Among the benevolent are the sun, the moon, the shaman, the serpents and the rocks that provoke rain and control the animals which they hunt.  Included in the malevolent are the beings which they consider from the underworld that cause all death and natural disasters.  Their communal rituals are an essential part of their culture.  They celebrate victories, animal hunting, and their harvesting and they praise the sun and the moon.  

In the Huichol tradition the peyote is identified as the spirit of the blue deer and they make an annual  pilgrimage on a long and difficult trek in search for the venerated plant.  To return to Wirikuta is to return to paradise.  To obtain the Peyote is to obtain Hikuri, which if translated to Spanish or English it would be "heart of the Deer God".  The Deer God is known as Tatewari and it represents the God of fire, the Grandfather God.  

One such ritual is the ingestion of the peyote.  For the Tarahumara the peyote was the Hikuri, the spiritual being seated to the right of Father Sun.  It was a plant so potent that it had four faces, and it percieved life in seven dimensions, and the plant could never be allowed to rest inside the houses of the living.

According to legend, the elders, met in the Sierra Mountains to discuss the situation in which they were.  Their people were sick, there was no food, no water, no rains came and the land was dry.  They decided to send four of their strongest men in the hunting community into the desert, with a mission to find food.  Each one represented a life element: earth, wind, fire, and water.  
The next morning they began their mission into the desert, each carrying his bow and arrow.  They walked for days until one afternoon a big and fat blue deer jumped from the shrub.  The young men were tired and hungry, but when they saw the deer, they started running behind him without loosing sight.  The deer saw the young men and felt pity for them.  He let them rest for the night and the next day he woke them early to continue with the chase.  

Weeks passed, and the young men were still chasing the young deer, until they reached Wirikuta (desert of San Luis Potosi and the sacred road of the Huichol).  They were right outside on the hillside of the region of Las Narices, where  a spirit of the land dwells.  They followed the deer and noticed the deer run in that direction.  They swore that he had gone there, but when they looked for him he was nowhere to be found.  

Suddenly one shot an arrow that landed in a large deer figure formed in the dirt where peyote plants grew.  The plants glistened in the sun like emeralds all facing the same direction.  The young men were confused by what they had seen and proceeded to cut the plants that formed the figure of the deer (marratutuyari) so that they could take them back to their village.  

After days of walking, they reached the Huichol Sierra where the people were waiting.  They presented the plants to the elders and told them of their experience.  They shared the peyote (hikuri) among the people, especially among the sick.  The villagers noticed that the rains came and calmed their thirst, their hunger was satisfied and they were cured from their ills.  

Since then on, the Huicholes and Tarahumara people venerate the peyote that at the same time is considered deer and corn, their guiding spirit.  Every year the people of these desert mountains make their pilgrimage into the high altitudes following the same route in search of the peyote cacti, maintaining this tradition from the Huichola Sierra all the way to Wirikuta.  Their mission is spiritual in commune with the gods. 

Carl Lumholtz, a Norwegian ethnologist studied the Indian tribes of Chihuahua and discovered that a symbol employed in the Tarahumara Indian peyote ceremony appeared in ancient ritualistic carvings preserved in Mesoamerican lava rocks dated over 3,000 years ago.   

In his writings Unknown México: Explorations in the Sierra Madre and Other Regions, 1890-1898 he recorded one account:  

"According to legend, they could find the plant as they heard its song thru the desert.  The hikuri never stops singing, even after being collected.  A native of the region told a story, as it happened one day, while returning to the desert he tried to use the sack of the hikuri he had collected, as a pillow to rest on for the night, but the singing of the hikuri was so loud that he could not sleep."

"Once the hikuri was collected, they were dried on jute, and then ground on a metate (a flat stone used for grinding corn and seeds) into a thick liquid the color of ochre.  A large fire was lit, with the firewood pointing to the east and the west.  Seated to the west of the fire, a shaman would trace a circle on the dirt and inside the circle he would draw the symbol of the world.  He would place on the cross a peyote button  and then it would be covered with an inverted squash which would amplify the song of the peyote that pleased the spirit of the plant.  The shaman would wear an adornment on his head made of plumes, which would reveal the wisdom of the birds to him and prevent the malevolent winds to enter into the circle of fire."

"Afterwards, the peyote was shared from hand to hand between men and women that were dressed in white cloths and bare footed.  After ingesting the peyote a ritualistic dance was performed that lasted until morning.  At the first sign of sunlight, the shaman and his people would stand up facing east and they bid farewell to the spirit with the arms of the hikuri, the spirit that had descended carried on wings of a green dove."

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