On St. Patrick's Day, we naturally think of all things Irish–including that staple of the Gaelic diet, the potato. However identified they've become with Ireland, potatoes were originally cultivated by natives of Peru, by some estimates as early on as 8,000 years ago. The marvelously versatile and nutritious tuber didn't arrive on the Emerald Isle until Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the lumpy veggies in the late 1500s. By the time of the great potato famine of 1845, more than one-third of the Irish population relied almost exclusively on the potato for nutrition, consuming somewhere between seven and fourteen pounds daily.
Potatoes have always flourished in the upper reaches of the Andes. Stroll into any open-air mercado in Peru, and you'll see a hugely diverse range of potatoes spread out on the ground for sale, from red and brown to gold, white, and even purple, from small and round to long and finger-like. This infinite variety helped protect Andean potato crops from the kind of devastating blight that attacked their homogeneous Irish cousins in the mid-19th century. That blight caused more than a million Irish to starve to death, and a million more to emigrate to the United States and elsewhere.
Potatoes have long been a vital crop in Peru. Since maize and wheat would not grow in the high elevations of the Andes, hardy potatoes became the staple of choice. The Moche, Chimu, and Inca cultures developed frost-resistant species from wild tubers called papa, which is still their name in Spanish. They even devised a technique for freeze-drying potatoes. The resultant chewy-textured chuño keeps for months and can be made into a white potato flour which can be stored for years.
In Andean art, religion, and medicine, the potato appears again and again. Ancient pottery artifacts were shaped to look like potatoes–or showed potatoes with human features. The Inca people worshipped potato gods who were celebrated and appeased with rituals and sacrifices. Potatoes were rubbed on ill people's skins as a remedy. Perhaps most telling is the fact that the Quechua language includes more than one thousand words to describe potatoes–akin to the Inuit people's many words for snow.
Today, potatoes are the fourth most important food crop in the world. A single low-fat tuber contains nearly 50% of an adult's daily vitamin C requirement, more protein than maize, and twice the calcium.
At the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru is the world's largest bank of potato germplasm, including samples of some of the more than 100 wild species collected in eight Latin American countries. Nine of these species play a huge role in the economic and nutritional sustenance of Andean subsistence farmers, and some farmers today grow as many as 45 different kinds of papas in their tiny fields on the steep Peruvian mountainsides. The Center is constantly working to save from extinction many of the small, genetically valuable Andean potato varieties to promote the kind of biodiversity that will, hopefully, ensure that the kind of potato blight that changed the course of Irish history will never happen again.
From Andean kitchens to yours...
Papas a la Huancaina
(Huancaina-Style Peruvian Potatoes)
Serves 4 to 6
10 medium potatoes, cooked and sliced
1 small onion, finely chopped
4 hard-boiled eggs
1/2 cup ricotta or cottage cheese, sieved
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 tablespoons evaporated milk
3 tablespoons oil
Juice of 1/2 lemon
10 black or green olives
Handful of fresh parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
- Boil a little water in a pan and cook the onion in it for a few minutes. Drain.
- Remove the yolks from two of the hard-boiled eggs and use a fork to mash them in a bowl.
- Add the ricotta or cottage cheese to the egg yolks and season with chili powder, salt and pepper.
- Stir in the milk and mix well.
- Add the oil, lemon juice, and cooked onion.
- Slice the remaining eggs.
Arrange the warm potato slices in a dish. Cover them with the cheese sauce and garnish with olives, sliced eggs, and parsley.
(From The New Internationalist Food Book by Troth Wells, Second Story Press, 1995.)