Chuños: The Ugly Little Potatoes Everyone Loves. Bolivian Food and Recipes
(Santa Cruz, Bolivia)
Chuños (pronounced CHOO-nyos) are freeze dried, dehydrated potatoes used frequently in Bolivian food and recipes, mostly in Western and central Bolivia, as they are produced by the Aymara and Quechua peoples of the Andes mountain region. Chuños get a bad rap because the potatoes become rock hard and have a withered, wrinkly aspect; however, once they’ve been cooked they are actually delicious!
The Incas, and possibly some civilizations before them, didn’t have electricity or refrigeration, of course, so they created a surprising way to remove the moisture from potatoes and freeze dry them to ensure a generous supply of potatoes would be available for cooking throughout the year. Potatoes are grown in the Andes Mountains where the weather is generally cool and arid, but warmest during the first part of the year.
By May the potatoes are ready to be pulled from the ground and the production of millions of chuños takes place mostly during June and July (the two coldest months of the year). This must be done during this short window of time because the entire process takes place outdoors in villages located very high in the mountains where temperatures fall below freezing only for a few weeks.
Potato farmers carefully prepare small fields where the land is very flat and cold. These will be the “freezing fields” where select potatoes are spread out directly on the ground and allowed to dehydrate in the sun during the day and freeze during the night. The potatoes are left there for several days and nights.
The potatoes are then bundled up and transferred to a second flat field where they are again spread out. These are the “trampling fields”. The farmers and their family members remove their shoes, wash their feet and proceed to walk and dance around on the potatoes. Trampling the potatoes helps to remove any remaining moisture they may contain. It also causes the potato peels to crack and fall off. Any portions of peels that are not removed by foot are later removed by hand.
The potatoes are trampled during the day for several days and remain in the fields for up to a week until the dehydrating and freezing process is complete and the potatoes have shrunk to half or even a fourth of their original size. If it rains, farmers must rush to bundle up their potatoes so that they won’t get wet again, and must wait for the rain to subside and the ground to dry before they can resume drying their potatoes.
Throughout this process the potatoes gradually darken and, depending on the variety of potato used, result in dark gray, black or even deep purple, hard-as-rocks dried potatoes. These potatoes are no longer referred to as papas (potatoes) and are now called chuños. The effort it takes to make chuños is worthwhile. Chuños can be stored for months, years, and even decades in proper cool, dry conditions.
These shriveled, wrinkly, rock-like freeze dried potatoes are not a pretty sight. In fact, they can be quite off-putting. However, the normally bland flavor of the potatoes has now been transformed into a delicious, slightly nutty flavor that blends surprisingly well with a large variety of soups, side dishes, and even breakfast meals.
To prepare them for cooking, chuños are soaked and washed twice before use. First, the chuños (which initially are very, very hard) are allowed to soak in a large bowl or pot with sufficient water to completely cover them. After a few hours, the water is poured out, the chuños are rinsed well, and then they are covered again in clean water and allowed to soak overnight. In the morning, the chuños will have soaked up some of the water and will be firm but soft enough to cook. The first change of water and second soak in clean water are necessary. After their first soaking, chuños release into the soaking water a slightly sour flavor as well as some of their color. If used without a rinse and second soaking, and allowed to soak overnight in this bitter water, the chuños will release this bitterness into any other foods they are cooked with.
There are over 1500 varieties of potatoes (in addition to many other tubers) in the highlands of the Bolivian Andes, although only 33 of them are officially registered varieties. Not all of them are suitable for making chuños, although the dehydration and freeze-drying process is widely used on other food staples such as corn, beans, peas, and fruit. The varieties used to make chuños are fairly starchy, medium-sized potatoes.
A second type of chuño also commonly produced in Bolivia is called the tunta. The initial dehydration and freeze-drying process used for chuños is followed for the production of tunta. However, during the week-long trampling process the potatoes, rather than being kept bone dry, are sprayed with a fine mist of water in the evening. As they freeze during the night, they gradually turn whiter and whiter. There isn’t a big difference in flavor between tunta and chuños, although chuños do have a more concentrated nutty flavor.
Because the potatoes undergo a quite transformative process, Bolivians do not even consider chuños to be potatoes anymore. In fact, the flavor and texture are so different that the two are not used interchangeably in Bolivian recipes. Instead, certain recipes are traditionally made with potatoes and others are made exclusively with chuños. On the other hand, the difference between chuños and tunta is less obvious. If black chuños are not available, tunta can be used in almost any chuño recipe.
Would you like to try your hand at cooking with chuños? Revuelto de Chuño is one popular and easy-to-make Bolivian recipe with chuños that is typically served as a side dish. Fricasé is an absolutely delicious, hearty pork stew made with chuños that will warm you up on cold winter nights.