Caldo de Piedra History

Pre-Hispanic Origins
The origin of stone soup is not to be found in history books and the date of its innovation is unknown. What we do know is that it is a pre-Hispanic dish, a purely indigeous delicacy characteristic of the Chinantec culture. An important aspect of the Chinantla is that it was never conquered by Spanish force the way that much of Mexico was; no colonial architecture is found in the region and Chinantec people continue to speak their mother tongue today. The customary stone soup dish has been long and covetously preserved by these Native people as it is a symbol of peace, coexistence and unity amongst community members, and is an intimate and private undertaking and offering. It is prepared by a group of men; collectively they divide the tasks of fishing, selecting stones, gathering firewood and building the fire to heat the stones until they are glowing red and ready to be dropped into the soup for cooking.

The gradual settling of spaniards into the region led to extraction and depletion of various “precious” mineral resources that local people did not value. Chinantecs knew that food was the true source of life and this is why the story of stone soup was never shared with outsiders. This vital cultural treasure could not be overtaken by colonial powers, and we insist that its authenticity be maintained.

The origin of stone soup may be traced back specificially to the village of San Felipe Usila, so say village elders. Oral history indicates that stone soup was invented when villagers experienced the need to cook their food, an event which occurred after the discovery of maize (corn, our mother and source). This happened about 5,000 BC. The words used by our village elders to explain this process of discovery today are “God put everything within our grasp, and we have only to explore our world, using the intelligence that God himself gave us.” This is to say that everything already exists within nature´s creation, and it is the job of mankind to discover and develop its depths and expansion.

A strong tradition
As is true for all of mankind´s “discoveries,” nothing is spontaneous and everything already exists. The early Chinantecs lived in intimate contact with nature, with the four elements, and after the phenomenon of fire came to be known, nature gradually revealed to these people the secret of stone soup. Their own curiosity and intelligence led them to this invention by virtue of necessity.

Fishing is known to be one of the first lifeways that primitive man developed, and it is closely related to stone soup as San Felipe Usila is a community blessed with plenty of water and a winding river in which abounds an exceptional diversity of fish and shrimp species; streams, pristine springs, and a rich tapestry of vegetation tie this dramatic landscape together.

At some point in the past, these early fishermen began to carve out the boulders lining the riverbanks in Usila. Large stones were worked to take on the shape of a bowl or pot with the aid of diamond cutting tools, a relatively abundant mineral in the region in pre-Hispanic times. These carved boulders can still be seen in the vicinity of the river today displaying concave centers typcially measuring from 50 to 70 cm across, and about 40 cm deep. Within these stone hollows, stone soup was preprared and then served to groups of up to 20 people gathering around the river on special spring days. For us stone soup is a very meaningful dish; representative of the love between neighbors, fraternal unity and our collective way of working.

With the passage of time and as man´s abilities evolved, the restless nature of our Chinantec ancestors compelled further experimentation with ways to prepare the fish soup, given that the first innovation had so worked well. It occurred to them to make the soup on the sand of the riverbanks, scooping sand out of the ground to again make a concave pot-shape, but this time chosing the much lighter material of pozole leaves (similar to banana leaves). The sand “pots” were lined with several layers of these leaves so that water could not leak out, a technological advance that served them well. Other adaptations were made to ensure that the red-hot cooking stones had no direct contact with the leaves and hence did not burn. The custom of gathering around the cooking place and sharing the soup among a group of people, including women and children remained unchanged.

In recent centuries, modern Chinantecs devised another way to prepare stone soup. While respecting the same traditional recipe and ingredients, a dried and hollowed-out native gourd was used as a bowl for the ingredients and the small cooking stones. This is the individualized serving style used by Chinantecs today, whereby each honored guests uses his or her own gourd, nevertheless, the work without a doubt remains a collective undertaking and the event a memorable gathering among close friends, relatives and distinguished visitors.

After reading about stone soup’s background, one may bettter understand why women do not and should not partake in its preparation. Stone soup is symbol and sustenance of the Chinantec man´s gender-specific livelihood development and innovation - a totally locally inspired way to honor their women and demonstrate to them their devotion and appreciation. With this story, the intelligence of early humans can be recognized, an observation in resonance with our present-day awe at such magnificent achievements such as the ancient pyraminds of Mexico. In accordance with the exactitude and precise calculations of these constructions, stone soup is cooked to perfection within a period of 3 to 4 minutes.

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Come with your family and enjoy this pre-Hispanic culinary artform! We also offer classic Oaxacan snacks such as memelitas, tlayudas, mushroom quesadillas and more.

About Restaurant Caldo de Piedra

In 1996, the Gachupín Velasco family opened an eatery called Caldo de Piedra, or Stone Soup, on the main street of their village, Usila.  Located in the northern reaches of Oaxaca State along the Usila River, this traditional indigenous community is surrounded by dramatic rocky mountains covered in dense tropical forest.  Read more »