Today’s post is brought to you by the letter P….
(despite the cover photo being maize!)
I like alliteration. So, this introduction to Peruvian foods is about two things that Peru has in abundance – Peruvian potatoes and pisco. One is the national spirit, and the other is (are?) the region’s gastronomic gift to the world, and a prime example of Peru’s biodiversity.
first, a little about biodiversity
Peru is celebrated for its natural biodiversity. The country is number one in the world for the diversity of fish with over 2,100 species found in its waters (and it has some beautiful waters). And first for butterflies. There are over 4,000 unique species of butterflies found in Peru. In fact, Peru ranks in the top five in the world for most categories of flora and fauna.
back to food…
The foods native to Peru (and the Andes region) include corn (maize), beans, potatoes, quinoa, and amaranth. In several of those examples, there are hundreds, even thousands, of varieties; most of which can only be found in Peru.
Aside from keeping menus interesting, why is this biodiversity of food important? Well, agricultural diversity leads to diversity in the diet of the people. Diversity in diet means a better source and balance of nutrients… healthier people.
This agricultural diversity is preserved through smallholder farming. More farmers growing more diverse crops. Can you see where this is going? Peru’s biodiversity is in danger. And if the best in the world is in danger, we all are. Have you seen the movie The Biggest Little Farm? If not, go watch it… I’ll wait here.
Potatoes have been cultivated in this part of the Andes – around Lake Titicaca – for at least 7000 years. There are over 3800 types of potatoes growing in Peru today, most of which only grow here. The majority of these varieties thrive at high elevations making the Peruvian Andes a focal point for cultivation, development, and research of this important and delicious tuber.
The Incan Empire (approximately 1400-1530s) cultivated potatoes in Peru throughout their short but significant reign. Potatoes are credited for fueling their civilization. Later, the Spaniards conquered the Incas, colonized Peru, and introduced potatoes to Europe in the 16th century.
what kinds of potatoes will you find in Peru?
Some are familiar. They’re the ancestors of potatoes that have travelled the world and thrived.
- papa blanca: white potatoes; waxy texture.
- papa amarilla: yellow potatoes; starchy texture.
- papa canchan aka papa rosada: thin pink skin, white flesh, waxy texture.
Then there are tons that are more regional. And their names, mostly in the native Quechua language, are quite colorful:
There’s “a squat, greyish tuber named after an alpaca’s nose, a yellow indented (one) called puma maqui, or puma’s paw. There is even a maddeningly knobby potato known as pusi qhachun wachachi, whose name literally means ‘make your daughter-in-law cry’, as it has frustrated so many prospective wives who have tried to pass the test of trying to peel it.”(The Guardian)
Today, the humble potato remains fundamental to the local culture and economy. But it goes beyond that. Research done in Peru impacts the entire world because – well – we all eat potatoes.
A bit of trivia: potatoes were the first vegetable cultivated in space!
But let’s keep our focus on earth for a bit. There’s an agricultural research center outside of Cusco. Their primary focus is the potato, which you’d easily guess from its name – The Potato Park.
“The Potato Park in Cusco is a 90 sq km (35 sq mile) expanse ranging from 3,400 to 4,900 meters (16,000 feet) above sea level. It has ‘maintained one of the highest diversities of native potatoes in the world, in a constant process of evolution,’ says Alejandro Argumedo, the founder of Asociación Andes, an NGO which supports the park.”(The Guardian)
Peruvian national potato day: May 30
I’m getting this post up just in time for us all to celebrate Peru’s National Potato Day on May 30. It aligns perfectly with Memorial Day weekend here in the US… a day when a giant bowl of potato salad would not be out of place! May I also recommend a Pisco Punch to go with it? (more on that, and a recipe, below!)
learn more about Peruvian potatoes by visiting Peru (with me!)
I’m doing this research in preparation for my upcoming culinary journey to Lima, Cusco, and Machu Pichu in late October 2022. I can’t wait to share my first visit to this beautiful place with this small group of food and travel lovers!
One of the agricultural tours we have scheduled is a visit with agricultural engineer, Manuel Choqque in the Sacred Valley. He researches and experiments with native potatoes and tubers to produce the wildest colored varieties, while seeking to improve their nutritional composition. We’ll visit his home and get to sample some of the over 370 varieties of potatoes he cultivates.
Other agricultural tours include a visit to the Maras salt mines, and to a hacienda in the Sacred Valley to learn about traditional maize cultivation, amongst other cultural practices.
And what will we drink with what we eat?
Pisco is the Peruvian national spirit. But what is it, really? Well, Pisco a type of brandy common in South America. Like all brandy, pisco is distilled from fermented fruit juice, usually grapes (the base is wine). That’s where the similarity to other brandy you may think of ends.
For starters, the most notable aspect of European brandies, like Cognac, is that they’re aged for many years in oak barrels. Pisco, by law, may not see time in oak – no wood at all. The flavor of pisco is truly unique – herbal and earthy. And the flavor comes directly from the grapes that go into it.
True Peruvian pisco “must be made in one of five coastal valley regions of Peru, including Ica, Lima, Arequipa, Moquegua and Tacna.” (Eater) The climate in these valleys are perfect for sugar development, yielding extremely sweet grapes. That means plenty of natural alcohol, which is necessary.
Pisco can only be distilled once, in a copper pot still, and must come off at its final “proof” (percentage alcohol, usually 38-48%). Note: more distillations equals higher percentage of alcohol in a spirit.
Peruvian piscos are categorized as Puro, Acholado, or Mosto Verde. Puro are the most common. They’re distilled from dry wines made from a single grape variety. When made from an aromatic grape variety, they’ll also include the word “aromatico” on the label. Acholado are made from blends of 2-8 different accepted grape varieties. Mosto Verde are made from single grape wines that are not fully fermented. This leaves some residual sugar which is then converted during distillation, giving more complex flavor and aroma.
The regulations and quality standards applied to Peruvian pisco are complex, so this was just a brief summary. If you want to read more about it, you can start HERE. Or, even better, contact me to arrange a custom private Zoom Pisco Happy Hour Class for you and your friends!
Are you ready to join me in Peru in October 2022?
Pisco Punch Recipe
The classic Pisco Punch is made with gum Arabic. Not impossible to find, but not something most of us have in our home bar kits. If you do, there’s a great version of the 1890s original HERE).
Instead of gum Arabic, I’m taking a lead from Serious Eats and making pineapple syrup.
4 cups granulated sugar
2 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 pineapple, peeled, and cut into 1-inch cubes
1. Combine the sugar, water, and salt in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil and hold for 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat and cool.
2. Prepare the pineapple. Put the chunks in a large container with a lid. Cover with the sugar syrup. Refrigerate overnight.
3. Strain. Can be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container for 5-7 days.
Pisco Punch (1 serving)
2 ounces Peruvian pisco
1 ounce unsweetened pineapple juice
1/2 ounce pineapple syrup (more, to taste)
1/2 ounce fresh squeezed lemon juice
1. Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake for a minute. Taste.
2. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass with or without fresh ice. (I like ice, you may prefer “up”)