Forget Machu Picchu, what Peru is really famous for is potatoes. And although 100% of people who come to this country probably pick the famous Incan citadel over that most delicious food, the potatoes here are worth the plane ticket alone. They are an incredibly important part of life, particularly in the Andean region, and have been ever since the Incan’s made Cusco their capital in the 15th century. They turn up in practically every dish, and a meal that already has rice is no barrier to chucking on a potato or two. Simply put, a meal without potatoes is not a meal at all. This is perhaps not great news for those calorie counters out there, but if you can forget about your fear of carbohydrates for a few days, you can enjoy one of Peru’s most important exports to the full. You will come away a fully-fledged potato head.
South America is the birth place of the potato, and although the exact origin is unknown, I’m going go with Peru. Seems like the obvious option. Potatoes were domesticated here as early as 10,000 years ago, and the vegetable has played a vital part in life ever since. Over the centuries potatoes developed from being a bitter vegetable containing dangerous toxins, to being the staple food of the local people and the main energy source for early Peruvian cultures. It is believed that the Spanish conquerors took the vegetable back to Europe with them and the Western love affair began in earnest. But whereas we in England have only been enjoying the delights of the potato for 400 years, the Peruvians have a much longer history with the food, and consequently it is tied up with their cultural and culinary identity. They are proud to be the fathers of the vegetable and it is as important today as it ever was.
Nowadays, potatoes can be found everywhere, and the section in any market where they are sold is a sight to behold. As a London boy, I would like to think I am fairly familiar with the humble spud, and have always counted it as one of my favorite foods. There is something so comforting about a potato and there is nothing better than a freshly baked Maris Piper on a cold winter’s night. But any illusions I had of expertise were dashed when I arrived to Peru, with the realization that I only recognized about 3 of the countless varieties on offer here. For Peru has a frankly ridiculous 3,500 varieties of potato.Now that may seem unbelievable, but taking a walk along any market in Cusco you will realize how easily you could arrive at such a mind-blowing number. There are big potatoes, small potatoes, potatoes that resemble those you can buy at home, and then potatoes that you could only picture in science fiction films. Looking at the vibrant greens, reds, and purples you will wonder if they can possibly be potatoes. They look more like…well, I don’t know what. Something pretty strange. The majority are not quite so odd though and there are just loads of different variations on the more traditional potato, coming in all sorts of weird shapes and sizes. This great variety brings with it different tastes, and if you ever thought a potato is a potato is a potato, think again. You would be amazed how different they can taste, and with years of experience to go on the chefs and cooks in Cusco have learned how to use each different potato and bring out its individual qualities. They are masters of using this humble vegetable and its appearance in practically every dish is no surprise. They just taste so good.
Today’s culture in certain countries seems to be a bit afraid of the potato, and the evil calories it hides within its smooth, yellowy surface. Not so in Peru. Here the potato is a vital staple and is important to the daily lives of many people in the Andean region of the country. After living here for over two years I am still not bored of it, and I am now getting to the stage where if I see a plate of food without a spud, I am liable to lose it and refuse to eat. A meal is not a meal without at least one potato, and Peru is the vegetable’s spiritual home. Spend some time here and you will wonder how you ever lived without your daily dose of starchy carbohydrate.