Whenever we think of culture or cultural identity, we may be tempted to think of arts and crafts, mythology, literature, clothing, rituals. But food and culinary traditions are also forms of cultural expression and can give us a deeper insight into that culture’s history, development, and values.
In this edition of Tomb Raider Horizon’s food-centric feature, Taste Raider, we will take a closer look at the chuño, the freeze-dried potato product that pre-dates the Inca Empire and continues to be a staple ingredient among the Aymara and Quechua communities of South America.
The word “chuño” derives from the Quechua word ch’uñu, which simply means “frozen potato”, and this potato product has a history that stretches back centuries, possibly even millennia. It is thought that the domestication of potatoes began in Peru and Bolivia sometime between 8,000 and 5,000 BCE and traces of chuño production have been uncovered at a number of archaeological sites in the region, including Tiwanaku in western Bolivia.
And while it is near impossible to pinpoint the exact origins of chuño production, the undeniable fact is that this freeze-dried potato product was born out of necessity. The inhabitants of the Andean highlands needed a reliable plan B in a region that was prone to natural disasters and failed crops, so they learnt to use the region’s landscape and climate to their advantage and developed the world’s earliest freeze-drying techniques.
Making Chuños While the Sun Shines
So, how are chuños produced and what sets them apart from regular potatoes?
First of all, it’s important to remember that as far as Andean gastronomy is concerned, chuños and potatoes are considered entirely different ingredients due to their differing uses, flavours, and textures. Despite their similarities, they are not necessarily interchangeable and many natives of Bolivia and Peru would balk at the idea of using regular potatoes as a substitute for chuños in their traditional recipes.
Nevertheless, you can’t make chuños without the trusty potato. The potatoes used for chuño production are often a smaller, bitter-tasting, frost-resistant variety and are normally harvested in May so that they can be processed in June or July (i.e. winter in the southern hemisphere). The harvested potatoes are taken up to large flat fields known as chuñochinapampas, which roughly translates to “the place where chuño is made”. Here, they are laid out in preparation for the freeze-drying process.
The potatoes are left to the mercy of the Andean Plateau’s harsh winter climate for a week or so. Frozen by sub-zero temperatures by night, thawed by intense high-altitude sunlight by day, the potatoes are soon ready for the next step in this age-old freeze-drying process: pressing. The weather-beaten potatoes are gathered into small piles and trampled on by foot, which helps squeeze out any moisture and remove their skins. The freezing, thawing, and trampling process is repeated for several days until the potatoes are sufficiently pressed and dehydrated. Any remaining potato skins are removed by hand and then the processed potatoes are left out to dry in the sun for another few days. The final product is known as “black chuño“, named for its sun-darkened appearance, and is one of the two major varieties of chuño produced in the region.
The second major variety of chuño is the “white chuño“. Also known as tunta in Bolivia, the white chuño is held in higher regard than its darker counterpart and is largely produced for commercial purposes and export. The exact preparation of white chuño varies from region to region but, essentially, the freeze-dried and pressed potatoes are shielded from the sun during the early stages of their production (often by covering the piles of potatoes with blankets) and then placed in running water for up to several weeks. Submerging the potatoes and keeping them moist prevents the potatoes from turning black and gives them their trademark chalky white colouring. The washed potatoes are then laid out to dry in the strong Andean sun and, once desiccated, are placed in storage or sold at local markets.
Processing potatoes this way greatly reduces the potatoes’ moisture content (up to 80% can be lost during processing) and eliminates the glyco-alkaloids that give the potatoes their bitter taste. The final product is not only lighter and sweeter but also rich in carbohydrates, calcium, and iron, providing remote communities with a vital source of nutrients during the winter months. Their light weight and reduced size make chuños easier to transport and store and, as I explained in my earlier article about ch’arki, the portability and longevity of freeze-dried produce played a vital role in feeding armies, officials, and labourers during the heyday of the Inca Empire as well as in the centuries that followed. Under optimal conditions, both varieties of chuño can be stored for months, even years, thus ensuring food security for rural and other far-flung communities in the event of war, failed harvests, or other natural disasters.
Chuño production in rural areas is a predominantly family affair, with women and children shouldering most of the labour. And in some areas, entire communities come together to work on the chuñochinapampa fields, holding picnics and singing traditional songs while they stamp on potatoes. If you’d like to learn more about the cultural traditions surrounding the production of chuño, Clare Sammells’ book chapter Ode to a Chuño: Learning to Love Freeze-Dried Potatoes in Highland Bolivia is a short but fascinating account of her time among the farmers of modern-day Tiwanaku.
Chuños in Modern Andean Cuisine
Like ch’arki, the preparation and consumption of chuños continues to the present day. Travellers to Peru, Bolivia, and Chile can find chuño in a variety of traditional dishes, including the beef soups chairo and jakonta and the spicy chicken stew sajta de pollo, while flour made from chuño is frequently used for baking or thickening soups.
There is still a slight prejudice against the use of chuños in modern-day cuisine, especially among those who harbour colonial attitudes towards the region’s indigenous cultures and write chuños off as a poor man’s ingredient. But the chuño has found its way into modern Andean gastronomy and is slowly becoming a household name among foodies who visit the region.
Packs of chuños (and chuño flour) can be ordered online or found in certain specialist grocery stores, so if you’d like to try your hand at some traditional Andean dishes, you will find a list of recipes below:
- Carapulcra, a Peruvian chuño, peanut, and pork stew often served with rice.
- Chairo, a beef soup commonly eaten in La Paz, Bolivia, and often seasoned with a few spoonfuls of llajwa chilli sauce.
- Jakonta, a Bolivian beef soup that also contains chalona, or lamb ch’arki. (Only available in Spanish)
- Revuelto de chuño, a scrambled egg dish that uses either the black or white variety of chuño.
- Sajta de pollo, a spicy Bolivian chicken stew that is made with yellow aji chilli peppers and often eaten during festivals and public holidays.
Sources & Further Reading:
- Chuño (Wikipedia)
- Chuño and Tunta ; the Traditional Andean Sun-dried Potatoes by J. Mauricio Peñarrieta et al., in Potatoes: Production, Consumption and Health Benefits, Nova Science Publishers, 2012.
- Chuño, el secreto milenario de los Andes para lograr que una papa dure 20 años (BBC News Mundo)
- Chuños (Atlas Obscura)
- History of the Potato (Wikipedia)
- Ode to a Chuño: Learning to Love Freeze-Dried Potatoes in Highland Bolivia by Clare Sammells in Adventures In Eating: Anthropological Tales of Dining Around the World, edited by Helen R. Haines and Clare Sammells, University Press of Colorado, 2010.