While visiting Natural Products Expo in Anaheim a few weeks ago the book 1493 by Charles C. Mann was recommended to me by a friend. I found it at the airport book store and finished the 680 page book within a week – much of it during the inter-continental flight back to Europe. It makes great reading for anyone interested in history and food – or just either one for that matter. Actually it is a must-read. Much of history was made by ecological changes caused unintentionally by humans including virus and bacteria, earthworms and cultivated plants migrating from one continent to another. Potato being one of the most important as many of us probably have learned in history classes. But reading this book you realize that potato played a much bigger part in history than we thought. I leave you to read the fascinating book but wanted to copy two chapters about how ancient Incas used potatoes. You’ll find the answer to the question in the text.
“Potatoes would not seem obvious candidates for domestication. Wild tubers are laced with solanine and tomatine, toxic compounds thought to defend the plants against attacks from dangerous organisms like fungi, bacteria, and human beings. Cooking often breaks down a plant’s chemical defenses – many beans for example are safe to eat only after being soaked and heated – but solanine and tomatine are unaffected by the pot and oven. Andean people apparently neutralized them by eating dirt: clay to be precise. In the altiplano, guanacos and vicunas (wild relatives of the llama) lick clay before eating poisonous plants. The toxins in the floage stick – more technicallyy absorb – to the fine clay particles. Bound to dirt the harmful substances pass through the animals’ digestive system without affecting it. Mimicking this process, Indians apparently dunked wild potatoes in a “gravy” made of clay and water. Eventually they bred less lethal varieties, though some of the old poisonous varieties still remain, favored for their resistance to frost. Bags of clay dust are still sold in mountain markets to accompany them on the table.
“Andean Indians ate potatoes boiled, baked and mashed as people in Europe and North America do. But they also consumed them in forms still little known outside the highlands. Potatoes were boiled, peeled, choppedand dried to make papas secas; fermented for months in stagnant water to create a sticky, odoriferous toqosh; ground to pulp, soaked in a jug, and filtered to produce almidón de papa (potato starch). The most ubiquitous concoction was chuno, made by spreading potatoes outside to freeze on cold nights. As it expands the ice inside potato cell walls ruptures cel walls. The potatoes are thawed by morning sun, then frozen again the next night. Repeated freeze-thaw cycles transform the spuds into soft, juicy blobs. Farmers squeeze out the water and produce chuno: stiff styrofoam like nodules about two-thirds smaller than the original tubers. Long exposure to the sun turns them gray-black; cooked into a spicy Andean stew, they resemble gnocchi, the potato-flour dumplings favored in central Italy. Chuno can be kept for years without refrigeration, meaning that it can be stored as insurance against bad harvests. It was the food that sustained the conquering Inca armies.”