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Added: 1 September 2001
[Commentary] [Lecture Series] [Science and Space]

South American Designer Potatoes

[Note: Rejected for publication by AgraFood Latin America monthly magazine, published in Tunbridge Wells, UK. See also Interview with Father re Potato Salad (Krznaric and Krznaric, 2001).]


Of the seven species of cultivated (Solanum) potatoes, only the Irish potato (Solanum tuberosum) is known worldwide. Yet there are other less-known species native to the Andes which are now being saved and promoted by the Lima-based International Potato Centre (CIP). Maintaining the world's largest bank of potato germplasms, the CIP has around 1500 samples of 100 wild species from eight Latin American countries and 3800 traditional Andean cultivated potatoes. Nine of the Andean native species have particular potential for consumption and export outside Peru's rural subsistence economy: achira, ahipa, arracacha, maca, mashua, mauka, oca, ulluco and yacón.

Neglected crops

These nine species, often known as Andean Root and Tuber Crops (ARTC), have been ignored for centuries except by poor Andean farmers, while the potato has become the fourth most important food crop in the world. There are a number of reasons that explain their marginal status. When the Spanish conquered Peru in the sixteenth century they largely destroyed the highly-developed Inca agricultural systems. Traditional crops, which had been cultivated for thousands of years, were replaced by European species such as wheat, barley and carrots, which the conquerors demanded be grown. This forced at least a dozen native root crops, grains, legumes, and fruits into obscurity. Solanum tuberosum was saved, being a useful food for slaves in Spanish silver mines, and later for workers in Europe's industrial revolution.

In modern times the minor crops continue to be ignored in agricultural research in developed countries, so that there is little information on their germplasm. Production constraints have included long crop duration, narrow ecological requirements, short shelf-life and poor market quality. Additionally, in the Andes these species are often denigrated as the inferior food of the indigenous population.

Basic attributes

Indigenous people in Peru and other Andean countries, and now the CIP, have maintained these nine alternative root crops. The table shows some basic information about them. As can be seen, they are grown in three main ecological zones. Tubers such as oca, ulluco and mashua have similarities to potatoes in terms of their ecological requirements, cropping systems and uses. Because of their cold-tolerance they are amongst the few crop possibilities at high altitudes, and are used to complement diets of potato, barley, faba beans and chenopod grains. They are usually cooked for their consumption due to their high starch content. In contrast to these, arracacha, yacón and mauka cannot be propagated from the edible root. Arracacha, achira and mauka require cooking while the sweet-tasting yacón and ahipa can be eaten raw and function as fruits in rural diets. Most ARTC do not suffer unduly from pests or disease, although oca crops are prone to weevil, and arracacha to fungi, nematodes and acari. A more detailed look at each type follows.

Table 1. Andean root and tuber crops (ARTC): Basic attributes
Common name Yield (T/ha) Crop duration (months) Users in Andes (millions) Users outside Andes (millions)
Cool temperate (2500-4000m altitude)
Oca 10-40 6-9 15 <2
Ulluco 5-20 6-9 30 -
Mashua 30-60 6-9 <10 -
Subtropical (1000-2500m altitude)
Arracacha 12-16 10-14 30 >30
Yacón 40-60 10-12 <1 No data
Achira 30-80 10-12 <1 >50
Mauka 20-50 12-18 <1 -
Ahipa 30-50 5-10 <1 -
Puna or cold-steppe (4000-4500m altitude)
Maca 10-15 8-9 <1 -
Source: Andean roots and tubers at the crossroads, M. Herman and J. Heller, Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK)

Potential uses

Achira: This is a highly adaptable crop grown from sea level up to 2000m, usually in isolated patches in orchards or small fields. With 27% dry matter, under 1% protein and 24% carbohydrate, its sugar content varies depending on how long it has been stored. Because of its sweetness, achira is normally stewed or roasted as a desert, and is also used as a food for babies and the elderly. In Colombia biscuits made from achira are popular, and in Vietnam its starch is used for making high-quality noodles. One of its limitations is the long cooking time.

Arracacha: Grown between 1000m and 3100m, particularly in the more humid valleys from Bolivia to Colombia, Arracacha is often grown underneath coffee plants or with maize and beans. It is related to celery and carrot, with dry matter, protein and carbohydrate ratios similar to the achira, in addition to containing substantial amounts of vitamin A. Arracacha is used to flavour anything from soups to deserts and in Brazil is used as a thickener in instant soup and in baby food formulas (successfully marketed by the private sector). The stems can also be used in salad or as a cooked vegetable. This is a particularly good high-value cash crop for poor farmers. Unfortunately it has a very short shelf-life and must reach consumers within one week.

Ahipa: This is not normally grown in fields on its own, and is usually found in family orchards. Like Yacón it has a high water content and is a good source of potassium and vitamin C. Ahipa is usually boiled (though it can be eaten raw as snacks and in salad) and can be used as a substitute for cassava. Higher in protein content that most other ARTCs, it is also possible that the toxic content of its leaves and stems could make it a successful natural insecticide.

Maca: This root likes very cold climates with adequate moisture, and is found only in Peru, including at levels of over 4000m. With a high protein content of around 15%, maca is also reputed to have fertility-enhancing qualities, and is used as an energiser and anti-stress agent. It is boiled in water then mixed with fruit juice or milk to make a thick broth. Maca is marketed as a nutrient supplement in a dehydrated and ground form in capsules.

Mashua: Like ulluco and oca, mashua is intercropped with other plants, and can be found from northern Argentina to Colombia. It is extremely popular in Colombia, partly because of its strong resistance to pests and disease, and due to yields often being as high as 70 tonne/ha; it is planted around fields in the belief that it will repel potato pests. Mashua is commonly used in food and folk medicine. Men often avoid eating it due to its reputation as an antiaphrodisiac. In Bolivia and Peru the tuber is left outside overnight and eating the next day with honey.

Mauka: Almost no scientific studies have been carried out on this crop, and it was first discovered and described by scientists only in 1965. Few fields of mauka are left in existence, and it can be found it Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. High in calcium and phosphorus, it is eaten either salty or sweet. To eat mauka sweet it is placed in the ground for a week to concentrate the sugar in the roots; the salty version is simply boiled without the outer crust.

Oca: Because of its high yield and good taste (in addition to low inputs), Oca is frequently used in Andean rural cuisine, and it also grown in Venezuela, Argentina and Chile. Oca has a high water content (around 80%) and is often fed to children, and used in soups and stews. It can also be dehydrated and used as flour. Experiments have shown that it could take the place of wheat flour in the preparation of bread.

Ulluco: This is grown in scattered areas from Venezuela to Argentina, but likes soil that is rich in organic matter. Ulluco has over 75% water content, 10-14% carbohydrate and is rich in vitamin C. Both the flesh and leaves (similar to spinach leaves) can be used in cooking. It is the most commercially viable and widely grown of these nine Andean root and tuber crops.

Yacón: The yacón is distantly related to the sunflower and grows from Argentina to Venezuela, in addition to having been introduced in Japan. It is almost 90% water and contains a fructose (inulin) that could be a sugar substitute for diabetics or dieters. Very popular in festivities in the Peruvian town of Cuzco, like ahipa it can be eaten without cooking. Yacón slices retain their crunchiness when cooked and have potential for use in Asian cooking.


The International Potato Centre's efforts to promote these nine alternative crops may help Peru's poor farmers find niche markets for their produce. Yet the battle against the potato will be a long one. While there is potential for the marketing of these 'designer potatoes' (as has been shown in Japan and New Zealand) the legacy of 500 years of neglect will not be easily overcome. Thus the CIP's support for new methods of propagating potatoes remains important in the Andean countries.

Source: International Potato Centre, Lima, www.cipotato.org

[Roman Krznaric talking by phone to his father, noted potato salad expert Peter Krznaric, across the Atlantic Ocean, and possibly several other oceans. 3 August 2001. See also Krznaric's banned masterpiece South American Designer Potatoes.]

R: Now I've got something serious to ask you.

P: Yes, go on.

R: I'm thinking of giving a talk to some friends about potato salad.

P: Oh god! How serious is that? [laughs]

R: So I need to ask you some questions about potato salad.

P: You absolutely may do so.

R: OK, now the first question is this: When did you first make potato salad yourself?

P: [Pause] I suppose in '54, '55 I suppose. Round about there, when Dad came over. See, when I was on my own I used to live at the hospital [fades]...Dad arrived in April '55 or May or something like that and that's when I started making it.

R: And how, how did you know how to make it?

P: Well, I think, I think Dad knew how, he'd remembered some of the stuff and we, I suppose, we looked up some sort of recipe, which included incidentally, originally, we used to make it with apple, you know -- half an apple. Or put a bit of kielbasa in it, or put a bit of herring in it.

R: Really? [incredulity]

P: Yeah.

R: I never knew about the herring or kielbasa.

P: Yes, we used to do it, but then you have to eat it the same day. You can only make enough for one sitting type sort of thing. Now you can put a little bit of herring in it, or you can put in a bit of kielbasa, you know the typical stuff with garlic -- garlic kielbasa, you know, to cut just a little bit, not very much, just a wee bit.

R: And then how did it develop, your potato salad?

P: Then, as you grew, your taste was changing and it became...you had different potato salads from different people. And I seem to recall when we used to go to Sima [...] she used to make those terrible things with lots and lots of mayonnaise and lots and lots of eggs. But we always had cucumber and potato...sometimes you used to put in onion as well, you know, the red onion. You see, when you put those sort of things in they don't keep, you can't keep it. If you put onion in it you have to eat it immediately. So it's better just to have cucumber, egg, potato, and, and a little bit of apple.

R: And what are the tricks to dealing with the potatoes?

P: Not to overcook them, I suppose that's the most important thing, and normally you'd have potatoes that are coming out of the jacket, not peeled potatoes [...] I used to put red capsicum in there to make it look nice [...] and make your own mayonnaise -- which is most probably better than the stuff you can buy anyway [...]