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The Bread of the Indians

Peru - 28 Dec 11 - Karissa Silva

Known as mama jatha, the potato has long been one of the central elements in the culture and life of the to the Andean populations of Peru. The Aymara word jatha is the translation of the Quechua ayllu, the political and social unit of the Inca Empire, an extended family community that collectively worked the land. The potato is at the heart of the community, the mother that feeds the men and women of the Andes. Its presence in daily life is so significant that in the past it was even used to measure time, each unit corresponding to the length of time it took potatoes to cook.

The potato was domesticated in the heart of the Andes. The mountain chain is home to extraordinary biodiversity and numerous rigid ecological Microsystems that have been made highly fertile by the ingenuity of the Andean farmers.

The Andes are a cradle of great cultures and civilizations and the homeland of many valuable edible and medicinal plants. It is believed the potato was originally cultivated in the 2nd millennium BC around Lake Titicaca. Dried, the tuber provided a source of nourishment even in times of famine. It is no coincidence that, in this region of harsh winter temperatures and altitudes of up to 4,000 meters, the relationship between humans and potatoes is one of mutual survival.

The pre-Incan cultures, and later the Incas, developed potato varieties that were capable of resisting the bitterest cold. They also came up with a freeze-drying process still practiced today, used to make what are known in Quechua as chuño or tunta. These dehydrated potatoes keep for months, even years, and are an invaluable resource in a region where agriculture and food production are heavily dependent on rainfall.

In his Historia del Nuevo Mundo, written in 1653, Spanish chronicler Bernabé Cobo documented the existence of the tuber, calling it “the bread of the Indians”. The local population is very proud of their 3,000-plus varieties of potato: no other country in the world has so many. And yet they are still not valued sufficiently and the Andean populations struggle to benefit economically from this rich heritage, largely because most of the harvest is for family consumption.

Potatoes are found in the most characteristic regional specialties: papas a la huancáina (with a spicy cheese sauce), papa rellena (stuffed), carapulcra (stew). They are also used in the preparation of ají de gallina, a spicy chicken stew which, together with ceviche (raw fish marinated in lemon juice), is considered the symbol of Peruvian gastronomy.

In the Andean region, potatoes are baked or grilled. One of the most traditional dishes is waiko, boiled potatoes accompanied by mountain cheese or ají (chili). During harvest time and the Inti Raymi festival, the people make huatia, cooking potatoes underground with the heat from embers. The tuber is also made into a soup or stewed with meat or cheese and ají and other vegetables.

The dish that best evokes the Andean cosmovision is pachamanca, or “earth pot”, from the Quechua pacha (earth) and manka (pot), which celebrates the fertility of pachamama (Mother Earth). This traditional recipe uses pre-heated stones to cook lamb, pork, chicken and guinea pig meat marinated in spices with potatoes. The preparation celebrates the bond between Mother Nature and human beings. It is, in short, the spiritual, social and ritual manifestation of the balance and harmony between earth and man.

Article taken from the Slow Food Almanac 2011.

To find out more:
Slow Food Presidia support the production of Quebrada de Humahuaca Andean Potatoes in Argentina and Pampacorral Sweet Potatoes in Peru.


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