By Marie Meyer
|A woman displaying potatoes from Huancavelica (All photos by Marie Meyer)
|"Chaccro" native potatoes
“Do you want fries with that?”
Have you ever wondered how many times a day those words are spoken in restaurants all over the world, and in how many different languages?
I talked to Dr. Zosimo Huaman, the now-retired leader of the team responsible for maintenance of the genetic inventory at the International Potato Center in La Molina, to find out:
So, Dr. Huaman, how many times a day are French fries served, and in how many different languages?
I have no idea, but I know the potato (Solanum tuberosum) is nowadays one of the most important food crops in the world after rice and wheat. About 130 countries of the world grow potatoes, feeding more than one billion people. The potato has also been grown by astronauts in experiments under zero gravity on plants taken on space shuttle Columbia in 1995.
People around the globe prepare potatoes in an amazing variety of ways: mashed, baked or fried, in pancakes, dumplings, cakes, soups, salads or casseroles, among many other forms of preparation. Industrial food products include pre-cooked and frozen potatoes to make French fries; crunchy potato chips; dehydrated potato flakes to prepare mashed potatoes; dehydrated potato flour to thicken gravies and soups; and potato starch to manufacture many other products like biodegradable polystyrene, ethanol, etc.
Doesn’t eating potatoes make you fat?
In industrialized countries potatoes are considered junk food, because people eat them fried as French fries or potato chips, or if they are baked or boiled they are served with toppings rich in fat, such as butter or crumbled bacon. People in the Andes eat potatoes either roasted or boiled, and served without toppings they are relatively low in calories and very low in fat.
Don’t peel your potatoes, because you’ll discard a lot of nutrients that are concentrated near the skin. Potatoes with their skins intact are very nutritious, containing carbohydrates, fiber, proteins, calcium, vitamins B and C, significant amounts of iron, potassium and zinc, and essential trace elements such as manganese, chromium, selenium and molybdenum.
But isn’t this the same potato that lead to the ‘Great Irish Famine’?
The potato was introduced to Europe by Spanish explorers in the late 16th century as a botanical curiosity. The first introductions comprised of relatively few potato varieties from which selections were made of those potatoes that yield tubers under the long summer days in Europe. Andean potatoes generally grow under short days. Potato breeders in the Northern Hemisphere selected early maturing potato varieties. It is the lack of genetic diversity, due to the very limited number of varieties initially introduced into Europe that left the Irish potato crop vulnerable to disease.
|Dr. Zosimo Huaman, formerly of the International Potato Center
In 1845 the ‘late blight’, caused by a fungus, spread rapidly through the poorer communities of western Ireland, resulting in the crop failures later called the ‘Great Irish Famine’. At present, Peruvian farmers in the highlands still grow more than 2000 native potato varieties, some of them very restricted in their geographical distribution. Some native varieties are frost tolerant and are the only potatoes that are grown at very high altitudes where frosts are expected .
So why are there a percentage of Peruvians that are “quite literally, dying of hunger"?
In Peru, native potatoes are unfortunately only grown in small plots in very remote growing areas in the Andes. Their harvests are generally for home consumption. In the past decades, the area cultivated with these native potatoes has considerably decreased because of the migration of young people to the large cities, and the lack of market opportunities.
These potatoes are generally grown under organic conditions, using manure, insect repellent plants, etc. The global climate change is also contributing to yield reduction because of more severe damage to the plants and tubers caused by insects and pathogens. Farmers do not use pesticides on native potatoes; therefore, the effects of any damage will be more severe.
How is it that so many tourists to Peru don’t know that they are visiting the ancient cradle of the potato?
Some people consider potatoes a European crop because: (1) they have been extensively grown in Europe for centuries; (2) People all over the world consume large amounts of potatoes per year (for example, 184 kg/year per person in Belarus, 140 kg/year in Russia, etc.; 3) The "Irish Potato Famine" is famous since it caused the immigration of nearly two million people to the USA between 1847 and 1851; (4) Polish vodka are made from potatoes; (5) The most popular potato dish worldwide remains “French” fries.
So what is Peru’s claim to fame as far as the potato is concerned?
The potato was first domesticated in the Andes of South America from wild potatoes that still exist in the northeast of Lake Titicaca in southern Peru, near the border with Bolivia. The ancestors of today’s Quechuas and Aymaras, were cultivating potatoes more than 8000 years ago. Potatoes are grown all over Peru, at altitudes from sea level to more than 4000 meters.
Now, native potatoes are part of the culinary boom in Peru. You find them on the menu at five-star restaurants, roasted, boiled or baked. Tourists enjoy blue, red, orange, yellow and two-colored potatoes. You should try French fries made with yellow potatoes in popular dishes like “lomo saltado” or accompanying grilled chicken. In 2008, the book "The Potato" was published containing a number of gourmet recipes created from a wide selection of native Peruvian potatoes, with the participation of the renowned French chef Jacques Benoit, from Le Cordon Bleu, in Paris, France.
Peru is also home to the International Potato Center whose mission is to reduce poverty and achieve food security on a sustained basis in developing countries through scientific research and related activities on potato, sweet potato, and other root and tuber crops, and through the improved management of natural resources in potato and sweet potato-based systems. They have published some wonderful information about the potato, for example “The Odyssey of the Potato
What role does the potato play in Andean culture?
People in the Andes pay tribute to this important food plant through a number of rituals to the motherland (“Pachamama”), during planting, flowering and harvesting. Various dances were recorded as part of the Cultural Heritage of Humanity by Unesco. There are also several potato songs thanking the "Pachamama" for protecting the potato fields against frosts, hail storms, pests and diseases, and giving people a good harvest. There is a video
in Spanish showing the ways Andean farmers grow their native potatoes.
What about tourists and the tourist industry?
Tourism is another way to provide some income to those communities that are conserving In Situ the biodiversity of potatoes and other Andean root crops like ocas, mashuas, etc. For example, visit the Potato Park near Pisac in the Sacred Valley. There are other places in Peru that are organizing visits to communal potato collections at harvest time to see potato diversity. Native potato fields are located at high elevations and can be easily recognized because they display a mixture of plant types, leaf dissections, stem colors, and very attractive flowers varying from white, pink, mauve, red, blue, purple and violet. At the harvest time, the tubers have different shapes, colors and tastes.”
I am pretty sure I have only seen white, yellow and red potatoes at my local supermarket in Lima.
In recent years, native potatoes are becoming more widely available in the Supermarkets in Lima. There is more diversity available during the major harvest season from May to July. The skin colors range from white to dark purple; the tuber shapes vary from rounded, ovoid to elongated; some varieties produce tubers like a snake, a kidney, a bunch of grapes, a fist or a hand; and their flesh color vary from white, yellow, pink, red, blue and purple, and many have two colors in the flesh, producing nice potato chips.
The flavor of the flesh is also very diverse. You could also observe displays of potato diversity and have a chance to taste them in events like Mistura, the Lima International Food Fair, organized by the Peruvian Society of Gastronomy. Another annual event is the Festival of Native potatoes at the Exhibition Park in downtown Lima. All year round, you could also buy in the Supermarkets a variety of native potato chips.
Which potato variety do you recommend?
The best potato snacks and French fries are made with native potato varieties with yellow flesh, with high dry matter or starch content. These absorb less oil than those made with modern white(Idaho) potatoes. Boiled or roasted, these potatoes are very tasty and are generally more nutritious. In the native potato collection maintained by farmers of San José de Aymará, Department of Huancavelica, 31 potato varieties with very high culinary attributes were selected out of about 200 varieties evaluated.
Some of them are now available in supermarkets of Lima after their harvest from May to July every year. The varieties most available in the markets in Lima have names like Amarilla Runtus, Puca Huayro, Huamantanga, Ishcopuro, Peruanita, Puca Camotillo, etc.
What can I do to support local potato varieties?
The best way to secure sustainability for the conservation of native potato varieties in farmers' fields in Peru is by promoting greater consumption of these potatoes in urban markets. When they are available in the markets, you can buy them, freeze them and then cook them in your microwave oven when needed. You will not find any significant difference in texture, flavor, flesh color, and appearance of the tuber when cooked, compared with cooked fresh potatoes. They are 2 or 3 times more expensive than the modern potato varieties, but well worth trying.
It took almost 15 years, but I made it back to Peru. And this time not only as a tourist, but with a husband and kids in tow, and here to stay for years. I am looking forward to learning the art of living in Peru, and sharing what I learn every week.
Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your comments and suggestions.
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