Power to the Potato!

Serve up the papas fritas, French fries, or pomme frites! May 30, 2024 will be the first-ever International Day of the Potato, a date chosen to coincide with the historic Peruvian National Potato Day celebrations. This is the first time that the United Nations has ever declared an international day for a major crop. They recognize potatoes have an important role in helping to eradicate poverty, improve food security, and provide healthy and nutritious food to millions of people. Potatoes are one of the five most consumed crops around the world following wheat, rice, corn, and sugarcane.

And although you may initially think of German potato salad or French fries, potatoes were first domesticated between 8,000-10,000 years ago in southeastern Peru near Lake Titicaca. Eventually they spread over the Andean highlands. The word “papa” is originally Quechua and simply means tuber. The potato joined corn and the quinoa as one of the Incan “three sisters” of complementary crops and staple foods. Potatoes were used in medicines, to make childbirth easier, and even to judge a prospective bride’s worthiness. They were used to predict the weather, and measure time based on how long it took to cook a potato to a specific consistency. Archeological research shows the Incas tested and cultivated different varieties to determine optimum agricultural growing altitudes, creating diverse micro-climates on their terraced fields spanning hundreds and even thousands of square feet.

Potatoes also became a primary energy source for the Spanish conquistadores. In the mid-1500s, those soldiers carried potatoes back to Spain. From there the potato traveled to England and Ireland, which had its own history with the tuber. The Irish dependence on one variety, rather than the Peruvian diversity, proved disastrous as blight attacked those crops and over one million people perished. Today you can find close to 4,000 potato varieties in Peru. Indigenous markets and restaurants showcase a rainbow of colorful tubers, in all sizes, textures and flavors. Some are boiled, others mashed, fried, stuffed, or freeze-dried.

Around May 30, many festivals and ferias throughout the country offer Peruvian papa dishes and drinks, cooking classes and contests. Local markets brim with multiple varieties. If you’re ever traveling on an ATA tour, we’ll make sure we don’t miss sampling the Huayro (magenta-streaked inside), Peruanita Pinks, Blacks, and Chuño varities found locally, but not sold outside of the country.

Betty Doerr, one of ATA’s co-founders and a trustee emeritus, shared some stories of Andean potatoes in an ATA May 2021 blog.  Betty visited weavers in the Accha Alta community and learned there are over one hundred varieties in that area, and each has its own name and use in the community. Saqmari are in the shape of a fist. If you use Muru Wayru the wrong way, you can be cursed. Puma Runtu Soqu are like the testicles of the puma(!), and the yellow indented Puma Maqui represents a puma’s paw. The squat greyish tuber Yana Poqochua resembles the nose of the alpaca. Pusi Q’achun Waq’achi are so tough-skinned that if you can peel one properly, you’ll make a good daughter-in-law. The name literally translates “make your daughter-in-law cry.”

Having lived in the Peruvian Sacred Valley, I share Betty’s knowledge about ancient potato preservation techniques. Weavers put tubers in woven bags in icy Andean streams for a few days, then spread them out to dry in the sun. These freeze-dried moraya potatoes will provide food for the weavers’ families throughout the winter. Some Quechua communities instead make chuño by spreading small potatoes on the ground overnight to freeze. The next day under a hot sun, the whole family stomps and tramples them to remove the water and skins. Repeating the process over several days creates dehydrated chuño.  You’ll see these small, light puffs in local markets, and both are served in soups and stews.

During the pandemic, COVID reinforced the value of locally-grown crops to communities and food systems. Many Peruvian city-dwellers returned to their birthplace villages, local populations swelled, supply chains broke down, and food became scarce. Andean weavers embraced their ancestral reverence for the earth and the lessons of those diverse terraced fields.

Scientists worldwide are finding hope in the humble potato. Six Indigenous communities helped organize Parque de la Papa (Cusco Potato Park) to defend food security in the region. The park covers more than 24,710 acres (10,000 hectares) and attracts plant breeders from all over the world, who come searching for traits such as disease resistance, flavor, or nutritional properties for their own crops. Andean farmers have sent 1,500 varieties to an Arctic “doomsday” vault to protect stock for an uncertain future. Far into the future, and “out of this world,” NASA is studying which variety is best suited for space food production, possibly on Mars.  A joint research project in Lima with NASA simulates a Martian environment using soils from the Andean mountains.

Understandably, the Inca believed potatoes were a gift from Pachamama, Earth Mother,to nourish and sustain the Andean people. It’s not uncommon to find the potato flower designs in local textiles as a way to honor this life-nourishing plant. When weaving communities of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco were struggling with food insecurity during COVID, ATA donors assisted by providing communities with donations for seed banks, particularly for potatoes. These life-saving donations were very appreciated, and indeed a gift from Pachamama as well.

So, join us in honoring and celebrating the simple, yet scrumptious spud on May 30 with some Peruvian recipes. Try the classic Papas a la Huancaina, Causa Rellenas, Salchipapas, Peruvian potato soup, or Lomo Saltado. Buen provecho (enjoy)! 



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