Thursday, June 17, 2010

Eating Chilean Potatoes

The world eats Chilean potatoes; 315 million metric tons in 2006, about 73 lbs. per person. Of course they are not all grown in Chile; China, Russia, India, USA and Ukraine account for 55%  while in a good year Chile produces .5% of the world’s supply, around 1.5 million tons.[1] And of course potatoes were not domesticated in Chile, but in Peru. But it is varieties descended from Chile’s potatoes, Chiloe Island’s to be specific, that feed the world; they are adapted to the long summer days of the temperate zone where most of the world’s potatoes are grown today.[2]

Potato Origins

Almost 200 species of wild potatoes (tuber producing species of the genus, Solanum) occur from southern Chile to the United Sates,[3] but the two major candidates for the wild ancestor of the domesticated potato, Solanum tuberosum, are from Chile, and from Peru and Bolivia around Lake Titicaca. Both areas have large numbers of potato varieties, which according to the influential 20th century theories of N.I. Valvilov, makes them likely centers of domestication. The potato origin controversy raged for years, but was finally resolved in favor of Peru by David M. Spooner, whose genetic analysis demonstrated that all S. tuberosum varieties are descendants of wild potato species from the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, first cultivated around 7,000 years ago.[4]

Cultivated and wild potatoes (photo: Peggy Greb)

But while the origins of the domesticated potato are clearly Peruvian, the earliest evidence that people were eating potatoes--in fact the earliest evidence of potatoes period--comes from Chile. Remains of wild potatoes, probably food remains, were found in the 13,000+ year old archaeological site, Monte Verde, the oldest well documented archaeological site in the Americas. (See Eating Paleo-Chilean: Food at Monte Verde). Darwin observed these wild potatoes on islands south of Chiloe in 1835 [5]:

Whether this wild species, Solanum maglia, was ever cultivated we don’t know; the domesticated potatoes of southern Chile are descendants of the Andean wild potato, not the local species. And they must have arrived early, because they evolved into a distinct subspecies (S. tuberosum var. tuberosum) adapted to the long summer days of Chiloe, and into dozens of varieties.

Claudia Gay, the French naturalist whose two volume Physical and Political History of Chile: Agriculture (1862-65) provides the best account of Chilean agriculture in the 19th century, writes:

In Chile this plant is grown in the wildest places, in the deserts, the islands, and in the mountains where they are sometimes found in such abundance that that the Indians have given one range the name of this tuber, the poñis range. [poñis is “potato” in the Mapuche language]
Thus the varieties resulting from the skill of the cultivators or a combination of natural circumstances are very numerous. ….in only the province of Chiloe I have observed forty five.
Though the soil of this archipelago is of inferior quality, the mild temperatures and humid climate are perfectly adapted for the cultivation of these roots, potatoes do very well and are the principal food of the inhabitants. The Chilotes take care to plant the varieties separately so that all do not come out the same. Some like the patirupñi, are bitter, bad tasting and serve only to fatten the animals; others like the huapa provide two harvests when planted twice a year, others are more or less appropriate for a good stew, or like the reina take the place of bread roasted in the ashes. Nevertheless, many varieties are frequently planted together and when harvested they are called chahuen. Certainly this kind of cultivation creates many other varieties, especially if the plants flower and bear seeds.[6]

Native Potatoes of Chiloe: A World Heritage

Click for a Google Translation of
Chiloe’s Native Potatoes web site says that “When the Spanish arrived it is certain that more than 1,000 varieties of potatoes were cultivated in the territory of Chiloe,” but today “this singular treasure of great beauty and value is encountering circumstances so adverse that one fears for its disappearance.” 

Chiloe’s potatoes come in a vast array of skin colors, flesh colors, textures, sizes, shapes, and characteristics such as productivity, soil preferences, disease and insect tolerance, drought tolerance, and so on. Beyond their intrinsic beauty and value as food, their genetic diversity is an important reservoir of genes with the potential for adapting commercial potato varieties to future challenges.

The threats they face come from the modernization of Chilean agriculture, as peasant farmers switch to varieties (including transgenic potato varieties) with greater market appeal, productivity, or resistance to specific diseases.

This is the voice of Norma Picticar, Huillinco village, Community of Chonchi, Chiloe: [7]
Like all the families that live in this area, we plant two types of potatoes; the large potato field where we plant introduced varieties such as the desiree or romana, destined mainly for sale, is the responsibility of my husband, and another smaller field that is my responsibility and is for family consumption is where I plant only Chiloe potatoes.
We don’t care for the taste of the introduced potatoes; the taste of the ancient potatoes is very different and they also have more starch which is good for meals and to make milcaos and sweets.
So my intention is not to stop planting these potatoes, even though I am worried to see that year alter year fewer Chiloe potatoes are being planted and planting of introduced potatoes is increasing. 
Sometimes when think about the future, I am convinced that the Chiloe potatoes are condemned to disappear, not because they are bad or because they are not useful in our way of life, but because things are changing in our community and it is changing our way of thinking, especially of the young people [who leave to take urban jobs].             

 Eating Chiloe Potatoes

In the 13,000 or more years that Chileans have been eating potatoes a wide variety of recipes have developed. Here are a few from Native Potatoes of Chiloe:

Milcao   Señora ALICIA MANQUILEPI, born in Chelín island, community of Quinchao.

Photo: Comida Chilena
First boil potatoes in salted water. Then peel and grate the same quantity of raw potatoes as those you have boiled. Grate the raw potatoes with a metal grater or on a piello, a grater of porous black volcanic rock. When the grating is finished, make the chae, that is squeeze out the gated potato in a dish cloth to separate the pulp from the water and lilo or chuño [potato starch in Chiloe Mapuche and in Quechua].
Once the raw grated potato is squeezed into a chautun [a ball] mix with equal parts of the mashed cooked potato and knead, adding the potato starch from the raw potato [optional] and lard to hold it together. Then make breads and push llire [pork cracklings] into the center. Milcaos can be fried, boiled, baked in the coals or in the oven. (For a more detailed recipe in English see Tasting Chile page 45, by Daniel Joelson)

Chochoca  Señora FIDELINA CARRERA NAHUELQUÍN , Aytuy, Community of Queilen.
Chochoca is another of our breads; the dough is prepared with mashed potatoes to which are added flour and a little lard. Then it is stretched and molded onto a giant roller called a chochoquero stick on which it is roasted over slow coals. Once cooked, it is taken off the stick and folded with lard and pork cracklings, cut into pieces and served hot. It can also be made in the oven, but with the chochoquero stick it is more authentic.

Making chochoda in Dalcahue, Chiloe

Papitas con color  Sra. LABINIA PÉREZ , Tey, Community of Castro.
During my life we planted many kinds of potatoes; so many that I’ve forgotten their names. But the pepinaI I remember. It was a “carnation” potato with yellow skin and pink spots over all its body; it was very good for papitas con color [potatoes with "color," i.e. chili or paprika oil].

It was a delight to eat papitas con color. You prepare them like this: Boil the potatoes in salted water, and while they are boiling you make a kind of sauce with oil, chili, salt, pepper and plenty of onion. When the potatoes are done, they are served on a plate with the tasty red sauce over them.
When my husband, Nicanor Barrientos, was alive we planted a potato that was very dear to us called pachacoña, not very big but a good yielder. We planted this potato with the sole object of drying then on the hearth on a lattice work (colon) where it was smoked and dried until almost dry. Then we cooked them in water and ate them when we drank mate [an herbal tea]. They were delicious, with a sweet taste and very soft. After my husband died I kept on planting them, but as time passed I was getting old too and no linger had the strength to plant, and lost these potatoes and their taste and the pleasure I felt drinking mate with them.

Papas Mallo  Señor. ABRAHAM ANDRADE, Dicham, Community of Chonchi.
Wheat flower for making bread is a very expensive product for us; we have to buy it in town and then pay to have it delivered out here in the country. So in all out meals we make potatoes mallo to replace bread. Potatoes mallo are cooked in water and served hot. All kinds of potatoes can be used, but the cielito [little sky] is one of the best. It’s called celito because its eyes are just as blue as the sky. It is a floury potato, very tasty.

Chilean Potatoes Today

With this history Chile must be paradise for potato lovers, right? Unfortunately not. Eighty percent of Chile’s commercial potatoes come from three varieties: Desiree, Cardinal and Ultimus. Two other varieties, Romano and Yagana, make up an additional 10 to 15% of the market. Of these, all but Yagana (which is light skinned with white flesh) are red skinned, multipurpose potatoes with yellowish flesh; indistinguishable from one another to the consumer.

Desiree. British Potato Variety Data Base

Why is there so little variety?
In the selection of the variety for fresh consumption in Chile the acceptance of the consumer of skin and flesh color and resistance to cooking plays an important role. The consumer prefers varieties that resist breaking apart when boiled. In relation to skin color, red skinned varieties are preferred. Chile is the one of the few Latin American countries and the only one in South America where red skinned potatoes predominate. This limits the possibilities for export of seed and fresh potatoes, as those with excellent characteristics for export would have great difficulties in the internal market.[8]
Desiree and its close relations (all developed in Europe in the last 50 years) are good potatoes; they are firm when boiled, and make acceptable mashed potatoes and French fries. And since “baked potatoes” are not a part of urban Chilean cuisine, the absence of mealy Russet-type baking potatoes is not a problem.

But it’s dull, and something of a waste,
that in a country with 1,000 types of potato,
so little variety is available.

Fortunately, some Chileans are trying to change that.
Would you like to try blue mashed potatoes that also contain antioxidant flavinoids beneficial to your health? Soon you will be able to eat not just this dish, but various others that contain six of the 286 varieties of potatoes native to Chiloe that will be promoted beginning in March [2008]. Colored potatoes from the island have been part of the diet of its inhabitants and the genetic base of thousands of varieties that today are eaten world wide, but were historically forgotten… But they didn’t disappear completely, because the peasants of Chiloe have continued small scale cultivation for family use. Isolated initiatives, such as “Papas Arcoiris” [Rainbow Potatoes] are trying to promote the product, thought up until now they have received more attention out side Chile than within.[9]

According to Papas Arcoiris' web site,
“Papas Arcoiris (Rainbow Potatoes) is a company dedicated to gathering together and improving in a natural manner the legacy of southern Chile to position it in the most demanding markets in the world.
Papas Arcoiris was founded in 2002. Its commercial manager is agricultural engineer, Boris Contreras, who together with his father Andres - a professor and researcher at the Austral University of Chile - successfully stimulated this commercial initiative.”
They are sold (occasionally) in Lider and Jumbo supermarkets in Santiago’s up-scale neighborhoods, and in the US and Canada by “The Little Potato Company.” Chiloe potatoes are also available from time to time in local ferias and in La Vega Santiago's central market.

Interesting transition: For 7,000 or more years native potatoes were a staple of Chilean diet, the product of the skill and determination of Mapuche farmers. Today Chileans eat a few similar potato varieties from Europe, in quantities less than Europeans[10], while Chile’s indigenous potatoes, neglected at home, are becoming the darlings of wealthy foodies in Europe and North America. I wonder what Pablo Neruda would think.

(Papa is Quechua for potato.)


Chile Mestizo A 30 minute made-for-TV film on Chilean food including a segment of Chiloe Potatoes.

Native potatoes of Chiloe Cookbook.A bilingual cookbook by the Chilean Association of Chefs, Les Toques Blanches.

[1] Latin America, Potato World, International Year of the Potato. On line at, and Potato, Wikipedia on line at
[2] American Society of Agronomy (2007, May 16). Biotechnology Solves Debate Over Origin Of European Potato. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 12, 2010, from
[3] Hijmans, RJ; DM Spooner 2001. Geographic distribution of wild potato species. American Journal of Botany (Botanical Society of America) 88 (11): 2101–12. On line at
[4] Spooner, DM; et al. 2005. A single domestication for potato based on multilocus amplified fragment length polymorphism genotyping. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 102 (41): 14694–99. On line at
[5] As quoted in Spooner, 2005.
[6] Gay, Claudio. 1862-1865. Agricultura, Tomo 2. París: En casa del autor; Chile: Museo de Historia Natural de Santiago, p. 119. On line at (Unless otherwise noted, all translations are mine.)
[7] Peasant Knowledge, Native Potatoes of Chiloe: A World Heritage on line at
[8] Kalazich B., Julio. Variedades de Papa. Instituto de Investigaciones Agropecuarias – Centro de Investigación Remehue, Serie Remehue No. 51. on line at
[9] Papas chilotas de colores salen del anonimato. Chile Potencia Alimentaria. 2/26/2008. On line at
[10] Chilean annual potato consumption is about 55 kg. per year; Europe averages 88 kg. See