Just before it starts the final stretch across the high plains to Puno, Peru, our train from Cusco squeezes through an open market in the town of Juliaca. We’re so close that we can practically touch the merchandize. In fact, the train passes over market wares laid out on the train tracks, with vendors barely moving aside for the whistling train. Juliaca is not the prettiest town, and, as we’re about to find out: neither is Puno. Arriving here from Cusco is a bit of a shock. Cusco fascinates with its narrow cobblestone streets and historic center. Puno is quite the opposite—but it is the Peruvian gateway to the highest navigable lake in the world: Lake Titicaca.

The Altiplano appears barren and desolate. Yet quinoa does well here, as do potatoes. Peru is said to have a mind-boggling variety of over 4000 different kinds of potato (including tubers like oca, mashwa and ullucu), and many of those grow right here, in the Altiplano region. Needless to say, the local diet revolves around quinoa and potato, and lake fish.

We leave Puno the very next day after a surprisingly good night at the basic but clean and comfortable Utasa Inn. The rickshaw ride to the harbor is a little harrowing when the driver steers me straight into upcoming traffic but, probably used to it, cars just swerve and we arrive safely at the harbor.

Our destination for the night is a lodge house on Luquina Island. Our local host Aldo meets us at the jetty and wheelbarrows our luggage down the beach to our lodgings. Aldo is Aymara, an indigenous people of the Altiplano. He lives here with his young family. Up from the beach and behind our lodgings are his fields where he grows grains, corn and potatoes.

It is breathtakingly beautiful here. Reeds between beach and lake offer a hiding place for birds, which we discover when a local man in a rowing boat makes his way into the reeds and birds fly out. Up the hill villagers in colorful clothing are working in the field.

Potato pachamanca

When we go for a stroll soon after we settled in, we find our host in his field, his own quarters just beyond: a shed and small cottage. He’s cooking lunch. His wife, mother, young son and baby—snuggled deep in a carrier blanket on his mother’s back—all huddle around a steaming dirt pit in a recently harvested grain field. The soil is turned over with a few remaining stacks here and there, still standing or broken in the dirt. We watch Aldo dig in the steaming hot dirt with his bare weathered hands. One by one he picks out the hot, cooked potatoes. It is a pachamanca lunch: a traditional Peruvian cooking method that uses earth (pacha) as pot (manca). Aldo’s pachamanca consists of potatoes, no meats, making for an easy “earth pot”: just hot stones, potatoes and dirt to cover it all up. But what potatoes! From yellow, purple, red to almost white, finger-shaped, round and oblong, sweet to savory: roasted on hot stones in thick clay, these potatoes are unforgettable.

Squeeze and freeze

As we leave Aldo’s field and follow the path to the village higher up, we watch families lounge, it seems, on meadows, each with a pile of potatoes in front of them.

They are working. It is winter here in the high Andes and that means days of warm sunshine and near-freezing cold nights. It makes for perfect conditions to dry the potato harvest: freeze at night, thaw during the day.

Young and old, the villagers are squeezing potatoes, stomping them and spreading them out on tarps and blankets. It is a process to remove excess water from the potatoes before they leave them to dry outside in the cold night air. The next day, the process starts all over again: the warm sun thaws the potatoes, frozen from their night-time exposure, and the potatoes get squeezed, stomped and turned to ready them for another night out in the cold. It’s freeze-drying potatoes Andean style. Known as ‘chuño’—it comes from the Quechua for freeze-dried potato: ch´uñu— freeze-dried potatoes come in two kinds: dark and white.

I hadn’t registered the buckets full of potatoes soaking in ice-cold water from the stream that we passed on the way up to the village. I do now, knowing that it is part of the dehydration method to produce those pumice-lookalike potatoes I saw at restaurant Central. These potatoes are soaked for days in ice cold water and then left in the sun until completely dry and chalk-white.

I’ve seen these! The chalk-white odd-shaped balls in the bowl that remind me of pumice came in a bowl at Central in Lima. Renowned for his culinary approach to highlight Peru’s many different ecological zones, chef Virgilio Martinez—I saw him working through the glass wall that separates diners from kitchen—used these dried potatoes in a dish. He used them as a decorative part for a dish of ‘chicharon’ of powdered potato topped with a fine mixture of alpaca, muña (andean) mint and tamarillo, or tree tomato, all sourced from high in the Andes.

Here, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, what awaits us for lunch inside a cozy home kitchen is a warm pot of homemade quinoa soup, followed by lake fish and local fresh potatoes. What more do you want?

 

RECIPE: QUINOA & POTATO SOUP

Serves 3-4

  • 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and sliced thin
  • 1 tablespoon avocado oil (or other)
  • 4 small to medium potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
  • 1/2 teaspoon seeded and chopped banana pepper (optional)
  • 1/2 cup uncooked rinsed (red, black or white) quinoa
  • 1 liter homemade chicken stock, or organic vegetable stock (or as needed)
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh herbs (a mix of mint, parsley and cilantro)
  • salt/pepper to taste
  • optional: grated Grana Padano, or similar

In a large pot, heat the olive oil and add the sliced onions. Lower the heat to medium-low and sweat the onions until soft and lightly caramelized. Add the potatoes, carrots, banana pepper (optional) and quinoa. Stir to mix. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the quinoa is soft (about 15 minutes. Add more stock if the soup is too thick. Season to taste, add the chopped herbs and serve immediately.

Note: if you let this soup stand, the quinoa will swell more and loose its texture. Eat freshly made!