Nowhere is the lowly potato more revered than in the Andes of South America. This is where potatoes originated. In just two countries — Peru and Bolivia — there some 10,000 different varieties of potatoes, in colors ranging from green to black to pink. Each has a unique taste and culinary purpose.
In Cochambamba, Bolivia, the market is a vast labyrinth of vendors and their wares. There are potatoes everywhere. Indian women in pretty straw hats sit beside colorful hand-woven blankets piled with what can only be described as mountains of potatoes.
“You can see the different sizes and colors,” says Anabel Landa, who has come to the market with her cook, Maxima Apaza.
They eat potatoes at every meal, but they’re not bored. In the Andes, potatoes come in amazing variety. Some soups require three different types.
Maxima points out a potato she calls papa (potato) huayco. This potato is so purple it’s almost black. Beside the papa huayco are huge baskets of brightly colored papa lisas, shocking orange with pink spots. There are potatoes that look like small brown rocks — they’re called chuno and grow at extremely high altitudes. Chuno is freeze-dried using an ancient process and can last for years.
“They soak it in water for a day, and they peel and cook it for half an hour in water and add scrambled eggs,” Maxima says. “It’s delicious.”
Spanish explorers brought potatoes from the Andes to Europe, and they instantly became an important part of the European diet. They are a great source of Vitamin C, and they’re easier and faster to grow than wheat. Potatoes became so important that when blight hit Irish potatoes in the 19th century, the result was widespread famine. The Irish planted only one variety of potato, which couldn’t resist the blight.
In the Andes, they’re preserving thousands of varieties. Some require a lot of water, others very little. Some potatoes grow at very high altitudes, while others are at sea level. Diversity like this is a proven tool against diseases and pests.
Now a new culinary movement called Nuevo Andino has sprung up to take advantage of all this variety. Classically trained chefs are combining native ingredients with modern techniques. For example: blue mashed potatoes.
“That’s a real trend to let the color components of the potatoes come through now. Everyone’s breeding for colors,” says Maria Scurrah, a biologist at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, an institute dedicated to preserving the potatoes’ amazing genetic diversity.
“It’s funny because for years the breeders were throwing out all the colored potatoes,” says Scurrah. “And now the next set of breeders are putting them back in, and that’s why I say it’s important to keep the genetic material, because they may not be like fashion, but we change our minds in what we really require.”
Back at the market in Cochabamba, Maxima is looking for eggs, an ingredient in the beloved Andean dish papas huancayna.
“When I was a kid, this was my favorite dish,” says Anabel. “When it was my birthday, I asked my grandma to do it for me and she always did.”
This dish requires papa imilla — red potatoes, perhaps a little less sweet than ours. Anabel and Maxima also buy lettuce, tomatoes, peanuts, medium hot yellow chilis and white cheese similar to the Mexican queso fresco or American farmers’ cheese.
Back at home, Maxima sets to work grinding the yellow chilis on the patio, wielding a 10-pound grinding stone — a staple for Bolivian cooks.
“It’s an ancient instrument,” says Anabel. “You have to be strong in your arms to move the stone.”
In the kitchen, Maxima toasts the chilis over a flame on the stove.
“She’s going to do a cream with this yellow chili,” says Anabel. “And then she’ll cook it with the peanuts.”
The peanuts are toasted on a dry skillet, mixed with water and the chilis to make a rich sauce for the salad. Watching Maxima cook brings to mind that before the Spanish conquest, time was measured by how long it took to cook a pot of potatoes.
Recipe for Papas Huancayna:
1 cup of peanuts
1 cup of water
2 T ground yellow peppers (or tumeric or cumin)
4 Medium red-skilled potatoes, peeled and cooked whole
4 Hardboiled eggs
4 Lettuce leaves
Cheese (Queso Fresco or farmers cheese)
Toast the yellow peppers over a flame, split them and take out the seeds. Grind on a stone or in a blender with a small amount of water. Toast the peanuts on a dry skillet and grind them with the water. Cook peanuts and pepper mixture for about 20 minutes, until it thickens to the consistency of gravy. Slice the eggs, tomatoes and cheese. Assemble by placing lettuce leaves on the plate, top with the whole potatoes and the sauce, sliced cheese on top. Arrange eggs and tomatoes around the plate. This dish can be served warm or cold. Serves 4 people.