A Peruvian grocery list will never simply include “potatoes” because the potato takes on a whole new meaning in Peru. When you go to any given market anywhere in the country, there is an entire section devoted to this starchy wonder. So, more specifically, your list may include “papa huayro” (huayro potatoes for frying or for huatia), “papa canchan” (canchan potatoes for boiling), or maybe “papa amarilla” (yellow potatoes for mashing).
Let’s take a closer look at Peru’s place in the potato’s history, the biodiversity, and culinary and medicinal transformations.
Peru and The Potato Origin Story
Today, potatoes belong to the top four world’s largest food crops, along with rice, wheat, and maize. However, long before arriving in Europe in the 16th century and the American colonies in the 17th, potatoes sprinkled the high Andes. Indigenous communities of the Peruvian, Bolivian, and Chilean highlands honed their agricultural prowess with this food stable.
Scientists haven’t pinpointed with certainty where potatoes were first cultivated in the Andes; however, they have come pretty close to officially naming Peru. An important archaeological find from 2016 suggests Southern Peru. Archaeologists from the University of California found microremains of what could be potatoes on farming tools from Southern Peru; these remains date back to 3400 B.C.
The Sheer Variety of Peruvian Potatoes
Considering the potato originated here, Peru currently grows by far the world’s most extensive variety of potatoes. How many varieties of potatoes are there in Peru? Upwards of 3,500 and counting! You will find every color in the rainbow practically, and an incredible range of sizes and shapes. Here is just a tiny sampling of popular Andean potato varieties to keep your eye out for when traveling through Peru:
Huayro: A knobby on the outside bright magenta and purple-streaked on the inside, great for French fries and chips
Llumchuipa Mundanan: Meaning “potato peeled by one’s daughter-in-law” in Quechua. This potato is SUPER knobby and traditionally used for a peeling test by one’s mother-in-law; the daughter-in-law must peel it in one fell swoop without breaking the skin coil.
Chuño: Freeze-dried potatoes! Indigenous communities still prepare chuño in the traditional method dating back before the Inca Empire. They leave these small white potatoes out in the frigid Andean cold overnight and then thaw them out in the daytime. Their texture completely changes and makes chuño perfect for hearty stews and soups.
Canchan: Bright pink skin and a white fleshy inside. This potato is great for mashing and boiling then serving plain – tons of natural flavor!
Peruanita: With multi-colored skin and a multifaced taste, these potatoes are perfect for roasts and barbecues.
Creative Peruvian Potato Recipes
There are countless very creative and unique Peruvian recipes featuring the potato. This coveted ingredient can take a lot of the credit for putting Peruvian cuisine on the global circuit. Some of these recipes even have medicinal properties, such is the case of tocosh.
Tocosh, aka Incan penicillin, is essentially a tried-and-true Peruvian recipe for fermented white potatoes. It is prepared by combining the potatoes with straw and grass in a bag and then submerged in a fresh mountain spring held down by stones. The bag will ferment there for anywhere between 12 and 24 months. Once fermented, the potatoes are placed under the intense Andean sun and dried. At this point, they can be used in several different pudding-type desserts.
Carapulcra remains one of the most coveted traditional recipes of the Peruvian Andes. It is essentially a pork stew made with one key and atypical ingredient: papa seca (dried potato). To prepare papa seca, you boil the potatoes, dice them, and then leave them out in the sun until completely dry. This is an incredible Andean preservation technique, hundreds of years old.
So, the next time you order a plate of French fries to accompany an ice-cold beer or pass around a heaping bowl of mashed potatoes at a family dinner, you are more connected to Peru than you might think!