Peruvian Potatoes: From Chuño to French Fries
Don’t be fooled by their humble place on the side of your plate. With 4000+ varieties, Peruvian potatoes are a cultural force that actually shaped the course of history.
Peruvian? Yes! Potatoes are synonymous with Peru.
It’s easy to take the humble potato for granted since it is so ubiquitous now around the world. But this nutritional powerhouse has a long, impactful and surprisingly sordid history, from the time it left its Andean birthplace to when it finally took root in Europe.
In this blog, we’ll tell you all about the history and cultural value of potatoes in Peru, including how many kinds of potatoes in Peru there are. We’ll also share what one group of high Andean Indigenous communities – known collectively as the “Potato Park” – are doing to safeguard their cultural heritage and keep Peru potatoes alive in the face of climate change.
Who knew there was so much going on with the humble potato?!
An Early History of Potatoes in Peru
Where did the potato originate? Some people might think that potatoes come from Ireland because we tend to associate Ireland with potatoes. But in fact, the place where potatoes come from originally is Peru.
Potatoes in Peru have been the “queens” of the table since before Incan times. Archaeological research puts the domestication of wild potatoes at around 8000-5000 BC in Peru and other Andean countries like Bolivia and Chile. The very first verified archeological potato may even have been found near the shores of Lake Titicaca, the high Andean lake that separates Bolivia from Peru.
Domestication of potatoes in Peru was no mean feat. Wild potatoes are actually poisonous! Early Andean peoples probably mimicked local wildlife who lick clay before eating poisonous plants, and started soaking potatoes in a slurry of clay and water before cooking. Eventually, they were able to breed less poisonous varieties.
How Peruvian Potatoes Changed the Course of History
Potatoes were introduced to Europe in the 1500s by the early Spanish conquistadors. From there, they spread to Africa, Asia and North America over the next couple centuries.
Initially, potatoes were not an easy sell in Europe. Popular opinion ranged from suspicion to disdain and even fear. The words of philosopher-critic Denis Diderot sum up the average view of the time. As written in his Encyclopedia (1751-65), “No matter how you prepare it, the root is tasteless and starchy. It cannot be regarded as an enjoyable food, but it provides abundant, reasonably healthy food for men who want nothing but sustenance.”
Hardly a ringing endorsement!
It would take two centuries for the Peruvian potato to really take root in Europe – and, even then, really only out of necessity or by force. Frequent localized famines and economic pressure driving up the cost of other staples like flour laid the groundwork for the potato’s dissemination throughout Europe.
By the late 18th Century, potatoes were widespread in Europe and, “[f]or the first time in the history of western Europe,” wrote Belgian historian Christian Vandenbroeke, “a definitive solution had been found to the food problem.” Many historians agree that Peruvian potatoes held the key to ending hunger in Europe, which in turn fueled its colonialist expansion for the next two hundred years.
So important were Peruvian potatoes to the rise of Europe that in 1853 credit was given to the English explorer Sir Francis Drake for bringing the potato to Europe, and he was immortalized in a statue by Andreas Friederich. The statue depicts Sir Drake with a potato plant in his left hand, and the inscription on the base read,
Sir Francis Drake,
disseminator of the potato in Europe
in the Year of Our Lord 1586.
Millions of people
who cultivate the earth
bless his immortal memory.
Peru Potatoes: The Origins from Ancient Peru to Modern Day
Today, the importance of the potato as a staple crop cannot be underestimated. It is consumed in 163 countries around the world, with a combined production of more than 400,000 metric tonnes per year.
It is among the most important crops worldwide, alongside grains like wheat and rice. Nearly 1.3 billion people include potatoes in their daily diet. Potatoes are packed with nutrition: they contain high levels of vitamin C, vitamin B6, fibre, potassium, magnesium and antioxidants.
They are also a very hardy plant, able to grow in a variety of conditions – like the very harsh climate found in the Andes. When you get above 4000m (13,123 ft), potatoes are just about the only crop you can grow.
Going back to Europe – before potatoes were introduced, farmers would leave up to half their fields fallow every year to allow the soil to regenerate and to fight weeds. Suddenly, farmers were able to plant potatoes there instead – essentially doubling the food supply.
As a result, potatoes are being studied in places like the International Potato Center in Lima as a way to end world hunger. The centre also houses a gene bank for Peruvian potatoes and other tuber crops. This bank – which contains thousands of Peruvian potato seeds – is meant to ensure that the genetic resources important for our food supply are secure for future generations. The other goal of the gene bank is to ensure that these Peruvian potato seeds are also available in the short term for farmers, plant breeders and researchers.
How Many Types of Potatoes Are there in Peru?
If you’re wondering just how many types of potatoes in Peru there are, the answer is…a lot!
Nowadays, there are nearly 5000 potato varieties in Peru, at least counting those being preserved in the potato gene bank.
You might not see 5000 different types of potatoes in a Peruvian market, but you will see a lot! From their size and shape to the potato colour, there are a lot of Peruvian potato types. Here are some of the most commonly used potato varieties in Peru:
Papa Blanca & Papa Amarilla – These are white and yellow potatoes, respectively. They are two of the most common types of Peruvian potatoes nowadays, especially Peruvian yellow potatoes.
Papa Peruanita – Unsurprisingly, a local favourite! This Peru potato variety has a vibrant, multicoloured skin and a rich taste.
Papa Púrpura – Aka purple Peruvian potatoes. If you’ve ever asked yourself, are there blue potatoes?, well here is your answer! Peruvian purple potatoes turn slightly blue when cooked, so they are sometimes also called blue Peruvian potatoes. In addition to purple potatoes, Peru is also famous for its purple corn which is used to make a popular drink called chicha morada.
Papa Canchan – Also known as papa rosita, this type of potato is firm and juicy when cooked, making it perfect for soups and stews.
Papa Huayro – Arguably the most popular of the Andean potato varieties, huayro potatoes have a “floury” consistency when cooked which Andean people love! They are most often served boiled, on their own.
As you might have noticed, potato colour is important for distinguishing types of Peruvian potatoes!
Other Potato Varieties in Peru
This is not an exhaustive list of how many varieties of potato there are in Peru, but hopefully it gives you a taste! In addition to the above and more of the “classic” potato varieties, there are other tubers popular in Peru that aren’t potatoes, strictly speaking. These include tubers like oca, lisas, chuño and camote.
Oca: Oca tubers are fairly small, longer than they are wide, and have a very distinctive, notched appearance on the surface. They can be yellowish-white, red or dark purple colour on the outside, and when cooked, sometimes slightly orangey on the inside. The cooked flesh is soft but also a little crisp and juicy – kind of reminiscent of spaghetti squash – and deliciously sweet!
Lisas: Another relative of potatoes in Peru, lisas are also longer than they are wide, like ocas, but much smaller. They are very cute! They are yellow, sometimes with flecks of bright pink on the outside. They are almost always served chopped into long, thin pieces, like mini French fries, and added to soups and stews. Lisas have a very mild flavour but they retain a distinct, delicious crunchiness even when cooked!
Chuño & Moraya: An amazing Andean innovation, chuños and morayas are naturally freeze-dried Andean potatoes which can keep for years without refrigeration. To make chuño, potatoes are first soaked in water and then spread out on the ground and left for several days. The sun’s hot rays dry the potatoes out during the day, while the frigid temperatures freeze them overnight. This repeated freeze-thaw cycle transforms the potatoes into soft, waterlogged blobs. The farmers trample on them to squeeze out the water, and also remove the skin. The result are small, light, almost Styrofoam-like little potato pebbles.
Chuños can be served boiled, on their own, or made into a thick soup. They are an acquired taste for non-Andean people, but they provide amazing sustenance, especially during times of bad harvest. Definitely give them a try if you ever travel to Peru!
Camote: Camote are sweet potatoes, a tuber common even outside Peru. Camote is most commonly served as a side dish to another Peruvian delicacy, ceviche – a fish dish common on the coast.
Famous Peruvian Potato Dishes!
Celebrate the Peruvian potato with these yummy Peruvian potato dishes you can cook at home!
Papas a la Huancaína: A delicious potato dish normally served as an appetizer, these are Peruvian potatoes with yellow sauce. Papas a la Huancaína consists of a few sliced, boiled potatoes laid out across a leaf of lettuce and drenched in huancaína sauce, a spicy yellow sauce made with ají amarillo, saltine crackers, and peanuts. The plate is usually also garnished with black or Kalamata olives and sliced hardboiled eggs.
Causa Limeña: Causa is a casserole made with a sort of creamy chicken or tuna salad sandwiched between layers of mashed Peruvian yellow potatoes. It is associated with Lima and is almost as pretty to look at as it is tasty to eat!
Lomo Saltado – A staple of Peruvian food and one of Peru’s most famous dishes, Lomo Saltado is a Peruvian-Chinese fusion dish made with strips of sirloin beef stir fried with tomatoes, onions and French fries in soy sauce. It is usually served with rice.
Huatia – Okay, this is not something you can easily replicate at home but it is a real treat if you ever travel to Peru! Huatia (WA-tee-ah) is prepared in the cold, dry months after the potato harvest, in rural Andean communities. The newly harvested Andean potatoes are placed into specially prepared small earth ovens. The resulting roasted potatoes have a slightly crispy skin and a rich, delicious flavour. It may just be the best way to eat potatoes in Peru!
Peruvian Potatoes: An Important Part of Local Culture
Peruvian potatoes are much more than just a staple ingredient in countless recipes. They are also an important part of Andean culture. Local communities cultivate an enormous diversity of potato varieties, native to each region.
Some potatoes even have special ritual significance, like one type of potato with a very knobby surface. It is given to young women as a “test” to see if they are ready to be married. If they can peel the potato in one go, they pass the test!
Potatoes can also be used in holistic remedies and cosmetics, thought to alleviate skin irritations, headaches and even to slow the aging process!
Preserving Andean Potatoes: The Parque de la Papa
So important are potatoes in Peru that there is even a group of Andean communities who have banded together to preserve the amazing diversity of native Andean potatoes. The Parque de la Papa (“Potato Park” in English) is a consortium of five Indigenous communities located in the highlands above Pisac in the Sacred Valley of Peru. Nomomente visited the Parque de la Papa in May, 2018 during the 10th World Potato Congress held in Cusco, Peru.
With nearly 7000 people, the Parque de la Papa members have become the self-proclaimed Potato Guardians of Peru. They are the superheroes of agricultural diversity and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK)!
The Potato Park member communities have created a biocultural heritage region and are developing a “creative collective economy” based on that heritage. Some of their initiatives include agro-ecotourism; traditional and Novo Andino cuisine; natural medicines and cosmetics; and more. They have also produced a local registry of biocultural resources aimed at protecting and promoting the collective heritage of Andean potatoes and other TEK.
Innovation Meets Tradition: Safeguarding Peruvian Potatoes
Their approach uses traditional knowledge, practices, customs, and pre-Hispanic technologies typical of the Inca civilization, adapted to a contemporary context but always grounded in the principle of sumaq kausay. Also referred to as “buen vivir” in Spanish, sumaq kausay (“great living”) refers to a lifestyle grounded in Quechua cosmology which aims at respect for and harmony with Pachamama, Mother Earth.
Potato Park is one of the best examples of Indigenous rural innovation in the world. The collaboration has brought sustainable economic development to the communities through tourism and the production of potato by-products for use in shampoos, soaps, and medicines. Not only that, but they are also working together to combat climate change and threats to food sovereignty in the region.
Regenerative Agriculture, Agricultural Diversity & Peruvian Potatoes
Andean farmers – like those in the Potato Park – are masters of agricultural diversity. Each community cultivates its own handful of native potato varieties (what they call landraces), and the exact mix might differ from one community to the next.
In a 1995 study, in one valley, they found that families planted an average of just over 10 landraces each, and up to 20 landraces per field have been observed. According to environmental scientist Karl Zimmerer, the diversity of Andean potatoes grown in a single field in the Peruvian Andes “exceeds the diversity of nine-tenths of the potato crop of the entire United States.”
Crop diversity is essential for long-term survival of the crop as a whole. Genetic and species diversity can help prevent total crop failure due to pests, drought or disease. This is especially important when farmers become reliant on pesticides which pests can become increasingly resistant to. We nearly saw the extinction of bananas just a couple years ago, a classic example of the perils of monoculture in farming.
Peruvian Potatoes, the Parque de la Papa and Climate Change
The Potato Park is an excellent example of traditional knowledge and innovative technologies working together. Not only has the collaboration brought sustainable economic development to the communities through tourism and the production of potato by-products for use in shampoos, soaps, and medicines, but they are also working together to combat climate change and threats to food sovereignty in the region.
Climate change is wreaking havoc on the Andes. Peru has already lost over 20% of its glaciers, reducing the water supply by at least 12% for the arid coastal regions, including the capital, Lima. This amount of reduction is equivalent to about 10 years worth of water consumption in Lima alone.
Melting glaciers also increase the risk of landslides and flooding lakes. A warming climate is also believed to lead to stronger and more frequent frosts in the highlands which can lead to crop failures and higher mortality.
Members of the Potato Park have identified the following impacts of climate change on their biocultural systems:
Increase in the incidence of pests and diseases;
climate instability – lower temperatures, as well as rain, drought, frost and wind cycles that are increasingly unpredictable compared to previous years;
among other things. These things in turn are affecting the annual agricultural calendar, making it difficult to grow the native Peruvian potato varieties which are adapted to specific ecological niches.
All of these effects impact traditional biocultural systems in Quechua communities, which have trickle down effects on biogenetic diversity, territorial administration, subsistence and the very cultural identity of the Potato Park communities.
Peru, Potatoes and a Lesson on Sustainable Development
Peruvian potatoes were an incredible gift to the world, and remain an important part of traditional Andean culture today.
Groups like the Indigenous-led Parque de la Papa and the International Potato Center in Lima are playing an integral role in ensuring the long-term survival of this important crop and its genetic diversity.
In fact, the Potato Park has a number of lessons to teach us about how to build sustainable, community-led initiatives. Some of the direct benefits that flow from the Potato Park’s work include:
Providing access to high-value markets for small farmers;
Building an inclusive supplier chain;
Implementing smart agriculture practices (soil regeneration, bio-based products, bio-fortification);
Mitigating the effects of climate change through varietal development via genomic selection;
Passing down TEK from one generation to the next;
Promoting entrepreneurship in younger generations.
The next time you ask yourself, where do potatoes come from, originally?, we invite you to reflect on the significance of Peruvian potatoes.
How a seemingly humble plant that we all take for granted can have had such an incredible impact on the world and shaping the course of history.
How such a simple product can hold such meaning for centuries-old Andean culture.
And how such an important concept as sumaq kausay, great living, can be perfectly embodied in something as unassuming as the humble potato.
About the Author
Miguel is a Colombian lawyer with professional experience in the energy sector. He recently completed an LLM in International Business Law focussing on the place of environmental concerns in the negotiation of trade agreements between states. He also has a particular interest in examining issues related to the availability of basic services in Indigenous and local communities.
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann. Copyright © 2011 Charles C. Mann.