Excerpted from No Small Potatoes: A Journey (More than meets the eye), by Elizabeth Johnston.
"Historically, the Native population of Peru has had a difficult time ever since the Spanish invaded South America and used the potato to suppress them. In the 1500s, when the Conquistadors displaced the Quechua men, relocating them far from their families and forcing them to work in the silver mines, the women tilled the fields alone and also continued to prepare dried potato, called chuno, so that they would have food in the off-seasons. The invaders enjoyed the best of everything, while the Quechua men had to use what little money they were paid for mining to buy chuno. It was the only food available to them, and in a terrible irony, was most likely made by members of their own family or tribe.
'The silver mines of Potosi,' wrote historian Salaman, 'discovered in 1545, were, of course, manned by native workmen, of whom, in the colonial period, untold thousands are said to have perished by reason of their ill-treatment in its deep and dust-laden galleries. These slave-workers were maintained almost exclusively on chuno, and bitter is the complaint raised by Cieza de Leon against the middlemen who swarmed out of Spain, bought chuno cheaply from the producer and, after selling it at a high price to the native workers, returned home with their ill-gotten fortunes. Potosi was no exception. Hans Sloane, after his return from the West Indies, informed the Fellows of the Royal Society that this method of 'subsisting' slave labour had been adopted in all the Spanish mines in Peru and elsewhere.'
I was beginning to see how the creation of the Quechua's Potato Park was even more remarkable than I had originally thought. Not only did they have to fight against the corporate incursions of genetically modified plants, including potatoes, they also had to work within a system that did not value them as equal citizens, and in fact, treated them with less regard than the potato itself."
Chuno is a process whereby fresh potatoes are naturally freeze dried in the Andes Mountains. The potatoes are laid out on the ground. Over the course of five days, with the alternating strong sun during the day and frost temperatures during the night, the tubers are dried, shrinking to half or less of their original size. In this form, they can be stored as long as several years, then reconstituted for use in soups and stews. The chuno can also be further processed into flour, which can be used to thicken sauces or used in baking. This form of dried potato has been around for thousands of years, dating back to pre-Inca times, and is still used today. Yet another reason why the United Nations declared 2008 the international year of the potato.
This picture is of a box of chuno flour that I bought in a grocery store in Lima, Peru, while I was doing research for No Small Potatoes: A Journey.
This is a picture of whole dried chuno that I bought in the farmers market of Puno, Peru, during the same trip.
About the Author
Elizabeth Johnston is a freelance writer living in Montreal. Her work has appeared in various publications including The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and the anthology A Room at the Heart of Things. She also teaches screenwriting, fiction, and business communication at Concordia University. Her book No Small Potatoes was published in the Fall of 2008.
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