During our agricultural revolution, humans came to view the potato as synonymous with kindness, sustenance, and in some cases even survival. It is a staple crop that provides energy and nutrition to millions of people around the world now. ranking in the top four most essential foods in the world. And while this starchy food is often associated with the colder months or our hearty Thanksgiving meals, many of us still enjoy potatoes all year round in more ways than we can possibly count on one. single hand.
Whether served fried, baked, boiled, marinated, or even mashed with lots of butter, our basic standard for potatoes is that they should always be tasty and never a bunch of bland porridge. However, our deep familiarity with the ingredient has also stripped some of its well-deserved street credit. We owe a lot to the lumpy potatoes that sit in a bag on the floor of our pantry. This staple culture supported indigenous civilizations for centuries, pulled much of Europe out of persistent famine, and helped fuel the rapid industrialization of the human race in recent centuries. The potato, as much as we like to call it dull or uninspiring, was one of the foods that changed the world forever.
One of the biggest issues that has plagued the conversation around food culture is the Eurocentric lens through which many see it. It’s easy to forget how the culinary heritage of Italy, Spain or France wouldn’t look or taste the same without ingredients like tomato, corn and, of course, the famous potato. Anyone who cares to dig deeper will eventually find that all of these foods have origins in Latin America, so European kitchens held on high pedestals by some owe much of their foundation to the Western Hemisphere. In other words, to better understand the potato is to better understand modern history, starting with the Inca people of the Andes of South America.
It is believed that the potato first native up to 13,000 years ago in the Andean highlands between southern Peru and Bolivia, where it was domesticated by the local Inca population between 8,000 and 5,000 BC. The diversity of potatoes in the South American mountains was extraordinary, with nearly 5,000 different varieties preserved by the International Potato Center of Peru today. But with such abundance also came a learning curve for the Inca communities, who realized that some species are highly toxic. Although human settlers eventually bred non-toxic varieties, poisonous potatoes were and still are popular with some. ingenuity. After observing how herds of wild vicuñas ate the poisonous potatoes by first licking edible clay, the Incas gave it a go and found that the clay miraculously neutralized the toxins from the harvest. These harmful potatoes can also be prepared by a process of repeated trampling and freezing overnight until they turn into chalky chuños, one of the world’s first freeze-dried foods.
When the Spanish arrival in Peru in 1532, they were not necessarily impressed by the sweet potatoes or the dried chuños that the natives ate. Nonetheless, they eventually (albeit reluctantly) embraced the staple culture and used it as a way to feed their navy on long voyages across the Atlantic. Once the potato has landed on the Spanish ground in 1570, the rest of the continent was also not inclined to embrace this foreign culture. It took centuries for Europeans to come to eat potatoes, mainly because they found them unsightly, unfit for human consumption, and in some cases a product of the devil or witchcraft. Many European monarchs have urged their starving constituents to embrace the potato as a means of survival, but the frequent famines that ravaged Europe throughout the 16th and 19th centuries made the reliable tuber all the more attractive. The final results was a reliable and highly nutritious solution to starvation and a crop that could help alleviate the impacts of diseases like scurvy, tuberculosis and measles. European population exploded, as well as the populations of the place where the potato was brought. The once dreaded spud had given Europe the power to colonize the four corners of the globe and change the course of human history.
The majority of potato varieties grown today come from Chile cultivar, which rose to prominence in the 19th century. China is today the largest potato producer in the world and represents almost a quarter of world production. Once the Chinese government regarded the potato as a alternative rice and noodles, which have contributed to increasing water and land scarcity, the crop has become a staple in the country’s mountainous regions. The potato plays an important role in Indian and Pakistani cuisines, with aloo matar and aloo bhujia being notable dishes. vodka distillers in Russia and northern Europe have turned to the potato as the main ingredient. These potatoes also made their way to Africa, although much later. Since its arrival at the beginning of the 19th century, countries like Egypt, Malawi and Nigeria have become major exporters with common recipes from the continent including Ugandan curry potatoes and Kenyan irio.
Regardless of its international success, the potato still has a special place in Latin American cuisine. They are found in Mexican papa tacos, Peruvian causas, Cuban papas rellenas, and Argentinian papa pastels. We see them in our caldos, tamales, and even dried as chuños in Bolivian dishes. Latin Americans should be proud, not only of our regional cuisines, but also of how our tierra has shaped the world we live in.
Our land is abundant and produces some of the world’s most beloved foods. Understanding how we played a defining role in the history of food is important to preserve our culinary identities, but also to protect our unique place in this narrative. It also reminds us of how truly interconnected we are, from table to table. No matter what type of Thanksgiving meal you find yourself in this year, know that that creamy mashed potato is always a little Latin American, even if they don’t look like it.