Of all the miracles of modern science that we have witnessed over recent years, few have received as little attention as the 2009 announcement by the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, that it had successfully sequenced the potato genome. It is a sad reflection on the state of our priorities as a species that this seminal discovery was overshadowed by other, flashier technological breakthroughs that year – including Apple’s launch of Siri, the utterly humorless, and mostly useless, personal assistant on the iPhone 3GS – because after rice, potatoes are the most important foodstuff on planet Earth.
To those dedicated souls through whose efforts the understanding that the potato genome contains 12 chromosomes and 860 million base pairs was added to the canon of human knowledge, and to food scientists around the world, this was a major event. Even bigger though, were the global festivities celebrating 2008 as the International Year of the Potato, spiritedly and perhaps, predictably, boostered by McCain Foods, purveyors of one-third of the french fries consumed globally. (Wait, what? You missed that too?) Nowhere was the potato’s anniversary celebrated quite so energetically as Peru where rather more than a degree of national pride rests on the belief that in their soil grew the origins of the first potato.
Indeed, both food historians and Incan mythologists trace the beginnings of potato agriculture in Peru back some 10,000 years to the shores of Lake Titicaca where, once the creator Viracocha had gotten through all the boring preliminaries of pulling the sun, moon and stars out of the lake, he listened to his rumbling tummy and sent his two sons to the human realm to teach potato husbandry to the newly-minted humans. Their teachings were heeded to such an extent that the 200 or so original wild potato varieties have been cloned into the nearly 5,000 currently planted in South America alone. Today, potatoes are grown on an estimated 192,000 sq km, or 74,000 square miles, of farmland across the globe and entire national cuisines, like those of Ireland and the Ukraine, are devoted to the humble spud. Truly the legacy of a benevolent almighty that even the most cold-hearted atheist might appreciate.
Our personal history with Peruvian potatoes stretches back only a decade to when we were introduced to the subtle pleasures of the Peruvian table at Brooklyn restaurant Coco Roco. The 15 block walk lent virtue to our gorging on their signature rotisserie chicken and over-generous sides of papas a la huancaina. Shortly thereafter, our first attempt at cooking anything Peruvian was influenced by their delicious take on the crunchy, briny pulpo al olivo, octopus in olive sauce. In fact, it might not be too much to suggest that both Coco Roco and our success with that seafood dish were our gateway into the culinary diversity of that Borough, having a profound impact on our tastebuds, and sparking the enthusiasm to try a ton of places that we might otherwise have walked past.
Anyone who has followed us for more than a year or so will notice that we periodically run low on inspiration, and return to what we think of as our “roots” and go through a period, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter, of making dishes that we loved as kids, or when we first met or just that remind us of those simpler, halcyon days before we had a pair of kids, pressure at work, a mortgage, and before everyone and their mother had a food blog. After a long and tiring summer of work and little play, we again found ourselves in need of the emotional succor of these nostalgic dishes.
We had been meaning to cook Peruvian for some time — ever since our final dinner in our former Brooklyn stomping ground one warm evening two summers ago, when we ate some incredibly delicious, modern takes on traditional Peruano dishes at Miguel Aguilar’s Surfish. Incredible, tender and garlicky grilled beef heart skewers (anticuchos), a shrimp soup (chupe de camarones) so good that a reverential silence seemed to descend on the entire restaurant after the first spoonful, and a tart mussel ceviche (choritos)that so elevated the humble bivalve you wondered why you would bother with any other shellfish again. But it wasn’t until we were poking around the shops one rainy Saturday last month before our monthly date – at the wonderful Serpico – and spied Martin Morales’ magnificent and super-looking new cookbook from his highly-rated London restaurant Ceviche that we decided to turn intentions into actions.
Both the dishes we made that night – the octopus (see next week’s post) and these potatoes – are at the heart of Peruvian cuisine, representing the two faces of the country, respectively, the Andean and Pacific, and neither are any more complicated to make than being able to boil water and operate a blender under minimal supervision. Finding the Peruvian yellow pepper paste could be a mite tricky depending on where you live and the quality of your grocery store, but the good judgment you demonstrated in visiting weareneverfull.com, can surely be parlayed into finding some aji amarillo on these here interwebs.
Since you’re by now regretting your infatuation with Steve Jobs’ handiwork at the expense of the fascinating, multi-faceted and altogether more vital potato those six years ago, you should seek immediate consolation in an immoderate serving of the peculiar creamy spiciness of papas a la huancaina. It won’t have the gravitas of the McCain Foods-sponsored world’s largest french fry cook-off or the gripping excitement of the “who can peel a pound of spuds the fastest” contest I once entered as a teenager, but it will connect you to 10,000 years of potato history, and potentially, to the omnipotent deity we have to thank for the tuber’s existence.
(serves 2 as a side dish)
- 4 large or 6 medium russet/Idaho (or any floury variety) potatoes
- abundant boiling water
For the Huancaína sauce:
- 8oz queso fresco (fresh farmers’ cheese) or mild feta
- 1/3 cup evaporated milk
- 1-2 tablespoons aji amarillo paste
- 1 large clove garlic, chopped
- juice of 1-2 limes
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2-4 saltine crackers
- Peel potatoes, and boil them whole in salted water until tender, about 20 minutes
- Drain and allow to cool
- In a large blender jar, combine all ingredients except saltines, and test for thickness.
- Sauce should be about the same thickness as whipping/heavy cream
- Crumble in a saltine cracker and blitz again. Continue until you have a sauce that easily coats the back of a spoon.
- Taste and correct seasoning. It should be mildly salty and creamy cut with the lime juice and with a nice heat at the back from the pepper paste.
- When potatoes are cool enough to handle, slice into 3/4 inch rounds, line up like dominoes and coat with sauce.
- Papas a la huancaina are often garnished with Peruvian purple (botija) olives, chopped boiled eggs and parsley. So feel free to do so if you’re about that life.
15 thoughts on “Papas a la Huancaina: The Humble Potato Bids for Immortality”
I’ve always known just from little bits of info here and there that the history of the potato had to be pretty interesting and after this wonderful essay I’m going to make sure I find out more. I don’t suppose you’d consider collecting ALL of your excellent posts and putting them in a book and,… hey, just askin’, ok? Really, they are all so great to read–always good humor too- (I miss reading Amy’s–I suppose the wee ones are to blame 🙂 but that wit! )
@Deb: we love you. You know that, right? Amy actually misses blogging. It’s true. She even promised to write a post soon because you said such nice things. If you have any friends who owe you a favor in the publishing world, we’d be happy for the introduction. Let’s just hope it’s a big enough favor to swing us a book, eh?
Aww, shucks—Love you guys too…especially that sense of humor. Alas, I have no publishing world pals but IF I DID…
The really good stuff never gets the attention it deserves, or not in a timely fashion, does it.
Side note: Via a mention by you in a long ago post, I read a bunch of Lawrence Durrell’s books–but ended up also reading his bro, Gerald’s books which I loved equally–funny as hell, and great knowledge re: nature. So see, I DO listen and learn. You should qualify for a grant for you book from D.O.E.
@Deb: you’re talking about My Family and Other Animals and The Garden of the Gods, right? I must’ve read MF+OA when I was in my early teens after seeing the TV adaptation on the BBC as a kid. I loved it and I would think that a lot of British kids my age would remember the show. What a family, eh? It just shows how less conventional upbringings can provide children with the creative spark and the material to pursue less than conventional careers. I guess it also shows how two siblings can be wildly different. Lawrence’s books definitely contained humor but, to me at least, quite clearly showed that he tended towards melancholia, while Gerald was quite the humorist.
This looks like a recipe anyone can do! What’s your favorite peruvian restaurant? Share it on your besty list! http://www.thebesty.com/weareneverfull
Yep, brother Lawrence was the very much the opposite of Gerald and much more cynical–which made the text that much funnier–What I’d really love is an autobio by Mom–now SHE was something else, right? Loved her spunk! I realize I’m a bit off point here as far as subject matter for this site, but any suggestions of other writers you love would be welcome—
@Deb: Sadly, I don’t get to read as much as I would like these days, but I recently picked up a copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s biography by Artemis Cooper and Jean-Anselme Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste, so I maybe able to recommend one or other of those once I’ve had the chance to read them. Not sure, if you’ve read anything by Eric Newby but I read his “Love and War in the Apennines” earlier in the year and enjoyed it immensely. On the strength of that I bought his “Last Grain Race” but haven’t managed to open it yet. And, another favorite from recent reading is the dense, yet disapprovingly humorous, “Old Calabria” by Norman Douglas.
OK, I’ll sound really snobby here, but I hope the Physiology of Taste you got is the MFK Fisher translation, at least I thought it was great–and anything else she writes for that matter… I’ve put Fermor’s An Adventure on my to-get-list; Eric Newby I read A Small Place in Italy (that was via your suggestion I think in a long ago blog) I’ll have to get Apennines now, and I’m pretty sure you are also responsible for my readings of Pico Iyar and Jan Morris, or else the blurbs on another book led me to them. All excellent! Now, about Norman Douglas—I adore him even if he IS a little bit–ok a LOT bit on the fringes–are you familiar with Roger Williams’ Lunch With Elizabeth David? It’s really a Bio of Douglas although fictional too, but highly entertaining and Old Calabria is mentioned in it, so I’ll have to get that soon too. Douglas’s Venus In The Kitchen is a gem. (see what you started??) My other favorites are Paul Theroux, Mark Kurlansky (COD is superb)and Edward Hoagland—blahblahblah sorry, books get me going—
Take care! and thanks for the ideas–
@Deb: no, not snobby at all. It is the MFK Fisher translation, so I’m optimistic. I read As They Were earlier this year and found it quite charming. I wish that she had been more “productive” in her writings as she is a real joy to read. Funny you should mention Roger Williams’ Lunch with Elizabeth David, as I was reading about Norman Douglas the other day and hadn’t previously known of his friendship with her, only his penchant for young boys. I don’t know Kurlansky or Hoagland, so will have to look them up and maybe ask Santa. I also wanted to mention Cees Nooteboom, who you may or may not know. His Roads to Santiago is about the best book on Spain I’ve ever read and his In the Dutch Mountains is very humorous even in translation from the Dutch. Also, I recently rediscovered a book I’d read years ago about the sea gypsies of the Indian Ocean called Outcasts of the Islands by Sebastian Hope. If you can find it, it’s rather good. I re-read it alongside George Orwell’s Burmese Days to get ensconced in that part of the world.
Don’t fear the book-talk on these web pages. It’s wonderful to engage with someone with the same tastes in writers.
I agree re: MFK–I wish there were lots more–E. David is no slouch either, her earlier “cookbooks” are really great to read–their life spans are almost identical, I wonder if they knew or would have liked each other? Two extreme women, so who knows–I like to think they would have been friends.
OK, so now I’ve added 2 of Mr. Nooteboom’s books you mentioned to my “wish list”–he has plenty of titles that look intriguing but I’ll limit myself until I get a taste! and the Hope book along with Orwells–Thanks!
Have you read HV Morton’s A Traveler In Italy? slowwww but excellent–and another great one, a collection by every author I’ve ever loved almost, is Literary Trips edited by Victoria Brooks, forward by Paul Bowles and he’s another story, …..
Enough! Thank you for the book talk.
@Deb:I haven’t read any HV Morton or Victoria Brooks’ Literary Trips, though I have read The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles and thoroughly enjoyed it. He’s someone I’ve been meaning to read more of but somehow haven’t. Speaking of folk like that, I also recently read Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano which is wonderfully depressing and rich, but haven’t read another word by him.
I’ll have to ck out Sheltering Sky, thanks. And I’ve put Under the Volcano on my list, too, although I’m pretty sure I’ve read it—My “memory search” is slowing up a bit,….I’ve noticed though that re-reading certain books can be a whole new experience, and one or two I’ve even read as many as four times, like Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for one, and a few MFK’s-
Dillard may be someone you’d enjoy just for the shear genius of her style, obviously just my opinion. But it’s beautiful.
BOOK REVIEWS! Thanks to the flu I had time to read the following since we last wrote. First off, Burmese Days was VERY good, I knew some of that history but the story made it so much more real–ironically, I suppose. I found myself clinging desperately to that drop or two of Sioux blood that I (supposedly) have running through my Viking-English-Scotch-Irish veins. As a wonderful coincidence PBS is running The Jewel in the Crown right now which seems a direct parallel time-wise to this book or at least close. Lowrey’s Volcano scared the crap out of me–his absolute honesty was painful, I could feel my stomach clenching constantly–really a masterpiece. (I kept imagining a young Julie Christie as his wife) A horrible, terrifying disease, to be sure. No one but an alcoholic could ever write it. Powerful stuff.
And now for the comic relief, the prisoner-of-war story! (since you don’t know me, that was me being wry:) ) Actually, Newby’s Love & War was very humorous and sweet in parts– very difficult and sad where, of course, it was during that war–But imagine living in that cave! What strength and determination it all took–and those good people, my God, it’s inconceivable what they risked for this stranger, but most didn’t think twice. I am in awe.
I’m now trundling along the Roads to Santiago with old Cees–LOVE him! even though quite a bit is over my head, but I must get more by him. Dutch Mountains is on the way and a few of his novels. btw, he mentions Blood of Spain–Ronald Fraser–do you know it/recommend it? Nooteboom’s work reminds me of Paul Theroux, esp. his Pillars of Hercules–I’ll go out on a limb and say you would love it, by virtue of what you’ve suggested to me.
Now, that’s it–but one funny story–I received a copy of Old Calabria and upon opening it there was a totally DIFFERENT book inside, something about the history of the Catholic church! Imagine my surpirse. It was obviously just a mfg error and I’ve since returned it and just today received the correct copy. But wouldn’t Norman love that? Also in my stack by the bed is Hope’s Outcasts of the Islands–with any luck I’ll get an even worse case of the flu so I can eat these up too. I’m a very greedy reader. (really Deb?)
So thankyouthankyouthankyou!!! (How is that MFK Phys. of Taste going for you?)
@Deb: Sorry to hear you’ve been sick, but I’m delighted you enjoyed Burmese Days. It’s one of my favorite Orwells. I’m currently digging through the Road to Wigan Pier and it’s awfully depressing, reportage-style with a ton of detail about what a miner got paid and how they don’t bathe from one week to the next. For someone who grew up in the East with all the ragged, malarial poverty, the grimy darkness of those northern pit towns mustn’t have been such a shock for him, but it makes for a soul-destroying read.
Under the Volcano is some rough stuff, isn’t it? Hard to fathom living through that with someone, but I found it hard to put down.
I found Newby’s narrative style incredibly cheerful in spite of the danger that surrounded him on all sides. The amazing goodwill towards him is almost unfathomable today when I’ll barely even look at my neighbors let alone talk to them.
Nooteboom is a real polymath, and, to my mind, a bit like reading Patrick Leigh Fermor. It’s complex, it’s rich and reflective of a lifetime of learning from the widest range of source materials, so it does get a bit much sometimes. That said, I think he has the most lyrical of styles and I love Spain terribly, so I find myself picking up and rereading parts of Roads to Santiago again and again. I haven’t read Ronald Fraser but I have sought out a few of the other books he references like Puig y Cadalfach, most of which are hard, if not impossible, to find in print or in English. I have read Theroux’s Pillar’s of Hercules and enjoyed it thoroughly. What I like about Nooteboom though is that he’s not afraid to go deep. Theroux’s methodology is always to skim the surface and move on. Some of his commentary reveals a deeper process, but Nooteboom is dense and rich in a way that I sometimes find overwhelming and for which Theroux’s style is a refreshing change.
And, I love the mix up you had with Old Calabria. Old Norm would have appreciated the irony, I’m sure.
Good luck with Sebastian Hope. I wish he had more books out there. He’s pleasantly humorous and a gentle observer. Like Theroux and Bruce Chatwin, I like the way he’s barely in the narrative himself. It’s not about him, it’s about the people he’s with.
MFK’s translation of Brillat-Savarin feels good to me. I’m finding it a little tricky to get fully involved with it because of work and exhaustion levels currently, but I’m optimistic about it.
I recently got Leigh Fermor’s biography so I’m excited to get into it as soon as I’m ready for it (I’m still wading through The Broken Road, which is excellent, but mostly not as good as the two earlier legs of his journey).
You said that perfectly about those authors that make the story about the places & people rather than a monologue about themselves. And yes, Mr. Nooteboom has no fear of going deep, I love that about him too. I had a hard time getting through the MFK with only one husband and two cats competing for my time, so I can only imagine what it’s like for you to find reading time–but hey, you and Amy are not only rearing young ones but cooking wonderful things and keeping up this blog and Lord knows what else! I on the other hand am spoiled rotten with “free” time to read. (and cooking for only two) I will check out Fermor soon, earlier work as you seem to prefer, and for now I’ve just started Calabria. It’s great to have someone to bounce these thoughts and reflections off of, thanks!