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Charqui is the South American way of saying "jerky," a word that derives from the earliest indigenous language of Quechua. Strips or thin slices of meat from cows, poultry or even llamas is trimmed of fat and left to dry in the shade, and then the sun. Salt and some other seasonings aid in the preservation effort and add the flavor that makes this worldwide treat hard to stop eating.
Also spelled charque or charki, the South American countries with the largest indigenous cultures, like Brazil, Uruguay and Peru, are more likely to use llama than elsewhere, where beef is more prevalent. Before the advent of refrigeration, charqui was more common due to the need for long-term storage, particularly over the winter months.
The preparation of charqui is not difficult, but it does take a few days or more to sufficiently dry the meat. The traditional way to start is by cutting the meat into uniformly thin strips and removing as much of the fat as possible, which will retain the most moisture. Many chefs use just the flank or rear sections of the animal, but any tender sections are suitable.
Many lightly flatten their charqui with a meat hammer before drying it, since no cooking process will be applied to make the meat more tender. Many also add other seasonings like paprika, cumin, lemon juice, vinegar and a range of other herbs and spices, then marinate the meat in the refrigerator overnight. The traditional method, however, calls for merely course salt, fine salt and then the sun, since marination will add time to the drying process.
The basic method for finishing off the meat strips is by liberally coating them in course salt, in a single layer on baking sheets, and then leaving them on a counter in the shade overnight. A dusting of fine salt is applied the next day, and the meat is left to keep drying in the shade another night. If the meat is drying on schedule, it can be placed in the sun on the final day. The covering should be removed and replaced with material like a mosquito net or screen that will protect the meat from bugs but will also allow the sunlight through.
In places outside of South American, this durable protein is often used as a well-preserved snack or during outdoor retreats. It is also home in a range of native dishes that provide more of a well-rounded meal. In Bolivia, for instance, the dish charque de llama takes the llama charqui and deep-fries it, then pairs it with ingredients like hard-boiled eggs, cheese and fried corn.
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