When the winter in the southern hemisphere gets worse, the Andean indigenous people take the potatoes to the foot of the snow-capped mountains, let them freeze on the bare earth during the cold nights and dehydrate them during the day when the sun is intense.
After this five-day process the potato is converted into a small, dry and dark fruit called chuño (wrinkled, in the Aymara language)an ignored version of the potato and invented by pre-Inca peoples to survive shortages in the arid Bolivian highlands.
Chuño is still prepared today -which according to experts can last up to 20 years– with these ancient techniques. And despite not having the fame that the potato has, it is an essential ingredient in the traditional cuisine of Bolivia and southern Peru.
The New York Times once described chuño as the food of the space age.
To squeeze out the water, the natives trample on the frozen potato with their bare feet. This is how they manage to dehydrate the tuber that the ancient Andean peoples began to cultivate 5,000 years ago.
“The chuño is not known, perhaps because it is petite and black. But the chuño is the best if you prepare it with charque (dried meat) from sheep,” Eulalia Canasa, who had brought her potatoes to the snow-covered mountains from a distant valley, told The Associated Press. “You have to come neither too early nor too late. to step on the frozen potato” because it’s so cold, he explained.
Chuño allowed to have dad all yeartransport it on the back of a llama through the mountainous confines of the Andes mountain range and exchange it for products from the valley to guarantee the food security of the ancient peoples who inhabited those mountains, according to experts.
Another derivative of the potato is the tunta, with a different flavor, which is obtained with the same dehydration technique but is allowed to soak in the slopes of the mountain range until it turns whitish.
“This is how our grandparents have always taught us,” said Ronald Condori as he trampled on a potato with his feet almost frozen by the cold.
The potato has its origin in the Andes Mountains and was brought to Europe by colonizers in the mid-16th century. It is currently the third most consumed food in the world after rice and wheat.
In Bolivia, nearly 200,000 farmers, almost all small producers, cultivate more than 182,000 hectares, according to the Socioeconomic Research Institute. 11% of that production, about 2,400 tons per year, is used to manufacture chuño and tunta for local consumption.
Despite the dehydration the chuño preserves much of the nutritional qualities of the potatorich in carbohydrates, fiber and potassium.
In an open field at the foot of the La Cumbre mountain, near La Paz, several families share the land and freeze their potatoes and ocas, another Andean tuber. The work is familiar as well as agriculture in the indigenous communities of the altiplano, an extensive semi-arid plateau enclosed between two arms of the mountain range at almost 4,000 meters of altitude.
“The chuño is a food rich in carbohydrates, it can be kept for a long time to feed the family the rest of the year and it lasts up to 20 years, thus ensuring food in times of drought and it is consumed by families not only from the highlands, also in the valleys,” indicated a study by CENDA, a non-governmental organization that works with indigenous communities to strengthen ancestral identity and practices.
With chuño, chairo is prepared, a delicious soup that also includes vegetables, corn nickname and dried meat and is the typical dish of La Paz. Chuño is also the main ingredient in Bolivian spicy chicken and stews, and in the southern Peruvian stew. In pastry it is transformed into flour to make cookies.
In the open-air street markets, vendors display the largest and blackest chuños to attract demanding buyers.
“If the dish doesn’t have chuño, it’s not tasty, it’s not food. It’s the best food, it makes you strong,” said Gonzalo Tola as he served himself a plate of chuño topped with peanuts and noodles at a popular market in La Paz. “People always ask for the dish to have chuño. If it only has rice or noodles after a while they are hungry again, the chuño fills you up,” said food vendor Silvia Ichuta.