October 2012

Chuño : a potato developing into the modern world

For over a decade now companies have been working bilaterally to diversify and modernise the chuño market in an attempt to create greater competition within the sector and higher profits for the potato farmers.

By: Timothy Sharkey
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Lisbellaw – Ireland

Picante de Pollo with Chuño Puthi
Photo: Ximena Noya

The chuño, potato of the Andes, has acted as a regular food source for the people of South America for thousands of years. The chuño´s resilient character and nutritious qualities allowed for the support of ancient South American civilizations, Spanish conquistadores, and fuelled the slaves of the Spanish silver mines. Made today by Quechuans and Aymaras in the same manner as it has been since time immemorial, the methods of preparation have been passed down from generation to generation.

However, with the development of the modern integrated market and increased technologies, the poor, rural potato-farming communities of the Andes have found it difficult to produce a tempting product for mass urban consumption.

The freeze-dried potato´s lowly beginnings are found high up in the Andean mountains. With volatile weather and unreliable harvests, the communities of the Andes sought to discover ways of assuring a regular food supply for times when climate variations caused poor crops. The ancient freeze-drying process used to make chuño takes advantage of the extreme variation in the temperatures of the Altiplano to create a reliable, preservable food source.

Rene Machado, anthropologist at the Museo Archeológico in Cochabamba, and a man who knows everything about ‘chuño’, outlined the process of how to make it. There is a basic method to making chuño, with minor variations in the creative process, and the specific breed of potato used, determining what precise chuño is created. Only the smallest potatoes are used to make chuño, with the largest ones being eaten or sold, and the medium sized potatoes replanted to ensure further crops. There are many different types of chuño, each with a different appearance, texture, taste and use in cooking. Perhaps the best known is the tunta, or chuño blanco, a white chuño created from white Runa or Imilla potatoes.

There are many different types of chuño, each with a different appearance, texture, taste and use in cooking.

It takes over two weeks to make tunta, with the majority of the two week process consisting of soaking the potatoes in a river, saturating and cleaning them. Rene describes, “The period of time in the water is like cold-cooking the potatoes.” Once soft, the small, saturated potatoes are squashed by stamping with the feet. Stamping peels the potatoes, squeezes out the water, and removes the acid, which beforehand gives potatoes a slightly sour taste. Once this stamping and peeling is completed, the freeze-drying process begins. The potatoes are left out at night to freeze in the sub-zero temperatures, and left out in the day to be dried by the sun. After being left out like this for 3 nights and 3 days, until they are completely without water, the resulting creation is a tunta.

Because the process for making tunta is such a long and arduous one, chuño farmers tend to sell them, as they are relatively expensive. Traditionally, tunta would be consumed for ceremonious purposes; at weddings and other such celebrations. The chuño negro is the more regularly consumed chuño of choice in Andean communities. Easier and quicker to produce, the chuño negro’s appearance is not considered to be as presentable as that of the tunta, as it doesn’t look as clean.

Dry Chuño
Photo: Ximena Noya

For this reason, despite its hallowed place in South American agricultural history, and its vital impact to local economies, the chuño has not been considered a very tempting food; the potato only tending to be a staple in the rural communities where it is produced. Chuño exported to larger Bolivian cities, like La Paz and Cochabamba, tended to be sold in bulk and was not subject to any food hygiene requirements. For this reason, chuño sold in opaque sacks was often damaged and contained up to a kilogram of soil. Without understanding the modern market place and modern hygiene expectations, rural farmers required help to deal with the challenges and opportunities an integrated market provides. Help came in the form of Papa Andina. The Papa Andina, a regional initiative of the International Potato Center (CIP), has been acting to reduce poverty in the rural Andes for over 10 years. By taking advantage of the unique climate and farming processes of the Andes, and in return helping with the promotion, advertising and packaging of chuño, Papa Andina has been helping to ´stimulate pro-poor innovation within market chains for potato-based products.´ Papa Andina´s results include: introducing public policies and practices to invest in the potato-sector, improving product quality, and changing the image of the chuño from rural man´s food, to high-end product and important cultural asset.

Over 700,000 farming families work in the potato manufacturing sector in the Andes, and the impact to rural communities is already tangible.

The commercialized chuño, sold as the Andean Potato (Papa Andina), is exported all across the world to cater for those chuño-eating immigrants who have now moved further afield. These packaged tunta are exported across South America: to Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela; North America, particularly Virginia and Washington where there are large Bolivian communities, and to Europe. But widespread wholesale of packaged, commercialized tunta is just the first step in modernising the chuño market. The next step came in creating alternative chuño products. Using the model of quinoa product diversification, which saw the grain used to create cereals and biscuits, chuño are now used to make crackers and sauces. By diversifying away from purely standard chuño production, new business niches were created allowing potato farmers to raise their prices with the newly increased demand. Over 700,000 farming families work in the potato manufacturing sector in the Andes, and the impact to rural communities is already tangible. Potato farmer Nolberta Nostroza states, “Now I produce and sell with less work, earn more, and take pride in sharing the native potatoes that I take care of, as my ancestors did before me.”

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