Most people think of a potato as a lowly, common veg. Not even a veg, really, but simply a starch. An empty palate, a potato tastes bland on its own, and most people think of a spud only in its boiled, mashed, fried or french-fried forms. Some know that a potato comes in red, yellow, white and purple varieties here in Canada, and that you can find baby, large or fingerling varieties at most farmers’ markets. But that’s about it. That’s the extent of our knowledge, our love and our fascination with potatoes here.
We barely scratch the surface of what is possible!
Potatoes to Peruvians are pretty much the backbone of a diverse, surprisingly fantastic & delicious culinary world. They have ancient roots in Peru and are a symbol of agricultural prowess, have feet firmly planted in Peruvian cultural lore and Inca history, and are a symbol of pride. Come along and explore what we discovered during our time spent travelling and exploring in Peru.
Peruvians grow 3,300-3,500 varieties of potatoes. The picture above shows an entire aisle of the San Pedro Farmers’ Market in Cusco that is devoted to potato vendors. Thousands and thousands of different colours, shapes, textures and tastes, all in the lowly potato.
Some potatoes look like knobbly tubers, more like a root than anything. We learned that some are quite beautiful, with orange or pink colours and rings or striped patterns inside. Then there are the different shapes, from long tubers to knobbly, bumpy lumps.
There are so many distinctive forms, that the Peruvians have come to rather creatively name their potatoes by their shapes: there’s a Hand, Cow’s Tongue, Llama Poo, Dog Poo and my favourite… The potato that makes the future daughter in law cry.
THIS is the potato that makes the future daughter in law cry. A great piece of cultural lore, the story says that as a future daughter in law, you need to prove to your mother in law (and aunts and sisters, etc.) that you will make a good wife by preparing a meal for her family. A crafty mother in law will request that the potato in Bill’s hand here be the one you must peel & prepare for the dinner, and you have to do it in front of them without cutting yourself while peeling it. Heh heh heh. I kinda like this idea!
Some potatoes have rough exteriors and look like nuts fallen from a tree. The ones in the second basket from the front left, in the photo below, are from the original potato strain, found in the Amazon basin, that eventually became the 3500 varieties known in Peru today.
Grown in the lowland jungle at the source of the mighty Amazon River, and all the way up into the high elevation highlands at over 3000m (above the peaks of our Canadian Rocky Mountains), potatoes are incredibly versatile and adaptable, able to be grown in a diverse number of ecosystems throughout the country. And Peru, with its ocean coast, its lowland Amazon jungle, its highlands, its proximity to the equator and its extremely high elevation mountainous areas has 8 of the worlds 12 ecosystems within its boundaries! That’s a lot of different growing conditions and the perfect experimental conditions for a culture fascinated with a single veg!
Historically, the Incas were incredible farmers. They experimented with plant manipulations and tinkered with microclimates, adjusting the growing conditions of their crops by planting up massive terraced landscapes like the ones below (the famous Pisac terraces).
These terraced slopes, throughout the country’s highlands, are still mostly intact, and a tremendous legacy of the Incas. Carefully designed to allow the passage of water through the rainy season with minimal erosion, each bed consists of four layers: large bulky stones, gravel, sand and then humus-rich dirt.
Every 3-5 terraces, depending on the location, changes the microclimate (the particular levels of temperature, warmth, sunlight, moisture, etc. that create a specific set of growing circumstances). The Incas developed new crops and new varieties of food plants, focussing on what are staple foods in the Peruvian diet to this day: potatoes, quinoa, corn, kawicha and tarwi (grains higher in protein than even quinoa).
Here is a terrace planted up with potatoes. We were here in early spring, so unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the crops in the regular fields. This one was more a demonstration plot at a historical site, than a working plot. But the massive scale of the terraced areas shows the amazing civil engineering knowledge of the ancient Incas, combined with an incredible commitment to growing a TON of food. The sheer size, I found to be almost overwhelming… certainly impressive!
The gigantic terraces above are at Moray and have been built into a natural sinkhole in the landscape (and yet NEVER flood during the rainy season— that’s how carefully engineered they were with a deep layer of pumice in the cone’s bottom). They are one of three sets of terraces on this site, and a laboratory of sorts for the Incas and their growing practices.
To put their size in perspective, you need to see us going from one terrace to another on this site….
This ability of the Incas to grow and store massive amounts of food is a point of pride to modern Peruvians that has had a lasting effect on modern-day practices. Time and again we heard of the Incas and their amazing agricultural knowledge, their ability to grow and store enormous amounts of food so that their population would never experience starvation and famine. Massive store houses at each archaeological site held, it is estimated, 15 months worth of food. And each time, according to our various guides, agricultural terraces and storehouses were the first thing built at a site, long before houses and temples were established. That’s how important growing practices, plant development and food storage were to the Incas.
The Incas developed techniques of dehydration and food storage that still exist in Peru today. The large San Pedro market in Cusco has giant sacs, small bags and even little towers of dehydrated potatoes throughout its stalls.
We met some people at our hotel who just couldn’t figure out what these “white stones” were, so like a woman on a mission, I dragged Bill to the local farmers’ market the next day to find out for myself! (No surprise there.)
Exceptionally light weight, these dehydrated potatoes are almost like chalk rocks. They were everywhere at the market, like the woman in the photo above with her tiny booth and her neatly stacked dehydrated potatoes!
They last in storage for a very long time, are very easy to move around the country due to their light weight, and are easily dehydrated with the atmospheric conditions around Cusco… very dry air, intense, hot sunshine during the day, and dry, cold nights. White potatoes are dehydrated in cold temperatures and dark potatoes are dehydrated in sunshine. The preservation techniques used by the Incas hundreds of years ago still occur today, in much the same way.
So important was this ability to grow and store food to the ancient Incas and Quechuans (“ketch-wan,” what the majority of Peruvians call themselves) that the current theory for the naming of Peru comes from the Quechuan word, “Pirwa,” for these storehouses (the storehouse remains are perched up on the hillside, in the distance, in the photo below of Ollantaytambo).
We ate these dehydrated potatoes a few ways while in Peru.
On our trek, our horseman & cook made these for us for lunch one day. Dehydrated potatoes take at least 24 hours to rehydrate (these were soaked for 2 days, then sliced in half, like a rather chewy bun, with cheese and ham inside and a tomato-mushroom sauce on top). I didn’t care for them much, but the dish was filling and good fuel on what was our longest hiking day.
We also ate them as a stew (pictured above). Rehydrated potatoes have a strange, almost meaty texture. They can also be ground and their powder used to thicken a stew or soup.
The black ones look a lot like truffles. And they also come in a diced form.
War efforts around the world have seen women having an impact on their cultures, changing habits, changing expectations, and changing societies with their integration into the workplace, with their stepping up to fill in gaps where needed. Peruvian women are no different. We were told an interesting story about potatoes, the dish pictured below, women, and a war with Chile 133 years ago.
The U.K. supported Chile in its war effort with Peru, wanting access to 2 regions in the Peruvian south and the products they grew there. Peru lost that war and 2 soil-rich areas in the process (there was still quite a bit of bitterness and resentment coming through in the telling of the story). During the war, Peruvian soldiers were starving and dying. Women banded together, mashing potatoes and stuffing them with veggies for the war effort… for the cause of the war. As a result, this delicious dish, Causa Relleña (pronounced, “cow-za rey-yay-n-ya”) was born. Today it can be stuffed with chicken as well and is an absolutely delicious appetizer, breaded and topped with pickled peppers and onions like the ones pictured above.
We had it in its very simple form while doing the Salkantay Trek as well, where it was stuffed with tuna.
Our storyteller (our culinary experiences guide, the awesome Chef José Luis, pictured here with Bill) summed it up this way, with a devilish glint in his eye: this is “a reminder that women save men at the worst moments of their lives!”
Relleñas… a national dish served many ways…
José Luis was a good-natured fellow, very knowledgeable and passionate about the food scene in Peru. A consummate chef and teacher, he is involved in pushing the gastronomic limits of Peruvian cuisine, especially when it comes to presentation. We learned a ton from him as we went out one night from restaurant to restaurant and street food stall to street food stall, learning about and sampling his favourite Peruvian foods.
Relleñas come in all kinds of variations now. In their most basic form they are simply a concept: layering with potatoes. Below is a trout relleña with mashed potato layered with mashed avocados, topped with smoked trout, fried celery, a mayo-based sauce and an algae pod!
Below was an appetizer we tried during a cooking class we took, where potatoes are layered with hummus and smoky, grilled eggplant.
And below is ricotto relleña, a dish with a very hot pepper that is boiled first in vinegar three times to remove its heat, then filled with meat, cheeses and raisins and layered in a potato cake of sorts
As you can well imagine, we were blown away by the food in Peru. (And I am writing here only about variations of one dish!) It was fantastically delicious and tasty… and the lowly potato forms the basis for much of its fare. The potato, to Peruvians, is an essential part of their pride, cultural expression and wealth. It has played an important part in their history and the development of their cultural traditions. And that love & respect has seen it develop into 3,500 varieties and hundreds of tantalizing dishes. We really don’t know what we’re missing here!