A Humble Treasure from Peru
By Tim Hazell
Many agricultural products consumed today, including quinoa and the potato, originated in the Andean region of South America. Temple complexes appeared 1,000 years prior to the Inca civilization, along Peru’s rain-starved northern coast. Intensive agriculture transformed the landscape, sustained by the ingenious use of natural fertilizers such as guano, the nitrate-rich droppings of birds. As a result, Moche and Nazca chiefdoms flourished in the area before AD 800.
By the 15th century, at the start of the short-lived Inca Empire, Pachacutec, emperor of the Tsinsantsuyu, or four corners of the world, had designed terraces of stone to create raised level fields that hugged the steep Andean hillsides and are still in use for cultivation throughout the region. In addition to retain soil and water during heavy rains, these elevations were irrigated naturally as water flowed downward from higher altitudes through an ingenious system of channels until reaching the lush gardens of sun palaces.
Most important of the highland root crops that were grown up to an altitude of 16,500 feet was the potato, Peru’s national treasure, of which there are over 200 varieties. Able to withstand the extreme temperatures—including nightly frosts—of the Puna, or highland plateau, potatoes were freeze-dried through exposure to sub-zero temperatures until the moisture had been extracted, creating chunya. Chunya will keep for months and can be reconstituted.
The vast empire of the Inca lasted just short of 100 years until the arrival of the Spanish in 1533. The potato gradually made its journey to the West in the holds of galleons bound for Europe shortly before the 17th century. Until its arrival, European diets had included starches, such as broad and butter beans. Considered food for prison inmates and the underprivileged by the Spanish colonists, the potato was finally adopted as a staple by the people of Ireland in the 18th century, due to its nutritional benefits. It contains most of the essentials needed for sustenance and can produce abundant yields on small land holdings.
Today, agro-ecological zones of the potato extend to at least 10 distinctly different climates, including lowland tropics, making it perhaps the most versatile of major food crops. This surprisingly adaptable root tuber has spread throughout the world through genetic modification and importation. Along with the banana, date palm, and breadfruit, the potato has been used to make cross-cultural comparisons between human societies, their social patterns, economics, and languages. East Indian cooks frequently include them in recipes and class them as a vegetable or pulse, adding them to starches such as rice. Here is a Moghul dish that is delicious with an accompanying green vegetable, evoking classic vegetarian pleasures of the palate. It is also superb with fish, poultry and meat preparations.
East Indian Potato Pilaf
1 medium potato, cut into small cubes
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1 inch ginger, peeled and minced
2 medium cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 cup (2 tbsp.) chopped
1 tbsp. olive or canola oil
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1 tsp. ground turmeric
A pinch of black pepper
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup basmati rice
Place the cubed potato in cold water with a pinch of salt to keep from discoloring. Let stand while preparing the other ingredients. Chop the onion. Peel and mince the ginger, chop garlic and coriander leaves. Heat the oil in a pot suitable for rice cookery; add the cumin seeds to gently brown, then add onion, ginger, garlic, and coriander. Lower to medium heat. Combine and stir until translucent, add turmeric, black pepper and salt and continue to stir a moment longer. Add rice, tossing in the oil and onion/garlic/spice mixture until grains are translucent, taking care they do not stick. Drain and add the potatoes, combining with the other ingredients. They should be evenly coated with the turmeric and turn a golden yellow. Add two cups of cold water to the pot and bring to the boil, then lower heat, cover, and simmer another 20 minutes, using a trivet between the pot and the flame if gas is too high. Turn off the heat and let stand 10 minutes, then uncover and gently fluff the rice to combine ingredients. Serves 4 as a dish with other vegetable courses, a salad, or as a side dish with chicken, meat or fish.