ANDEAN TUBERS: THE CONTRIBUTION OF INCAS GENIUS
Nine crops of native Andean roots and tubers have economic and nutritional importance for the subsistence of farmers in the Andes. They grow at high altitude under extremely difficult conditions such as drought, freezing temperatures and UV exposure. In terms of food security, these are the three most important Andean root and tuber crops. The combined cultivation of potatoes with goose, olluco and mashua is a tradition that goes back thousands of years, and these crops provide valuable additional nutrients to the basic potato diet.
OCA (OXALIS TUBEROSA)
The goose is the second most widely grown tuber after the potato. It is robust and resistant to frost, with long and cylindrical tubers ranging from white to grayish dark purple. Rich in proteins with a good balance of amino acids, it is also a good source of fiber and high in antioxidants. Described in the chronicles of the Spanish conquerors, ceramic representations indicate that the goose was a staple food highly revered since pre-Columbian times. Its high performance and pleasant flavor makes it very popular in Andean rural cuisine where it is traditionally prepared in soups or stews. The tubers are also consumed baked or roasted and usually left in the sun to be sweetened before cooking.
OLLUCO (ULLUCUS TUBEROSUS)
Olluco is the most recognized of the Andean root and tuber crops, popular for its flavor. It is easy to grow, resistant to frost and with moderate resistance to drought, although the plant prefers soils rich in organic matter. The olluco tubers have a variety of colors and shapes. Due to their high water content, they are more suitable for boiling, and since their shell is soft and shiny it does not require peeling before being consumed. The leaves are also edible. Rich in protein, calcium and carotene, they are similar in texture to spinach. A spoonful of cooked leaves can contribute a considerable part of a child’s essential daily nutritional requirements.
MASHUA (TROPAEOLUM TUBEROSUM)
Mashua is one of the highest yielding Andean tubers and is one of the easiest to grow. It thrives in marginal soils, develops rapidly and competes successfully with weeds. Its cone-shaped tubers are usually white, yellow, red or purple. They contain high levels of isothiocyanates (glucosinolates), well known for their insecticidal and medicinal properties. This may explain the virtual absence of pests and diseases of this crop. This strong resistance is one of the reasons why mashua is traditionally planted interspersed with other plants; Farmers use it as a natural way to repel insects and pathogens. Mashua is a traditional diuretic and a remedy for kidney ailments. Recently it has been shown that it can prevent the development of cancer cells in the stomach, colon, skin and prostate. Despite its high nutritional value, mashua is not widely marketed. Because in traditional medicine it is used to regulate libido (it is said that the Incas used it to mitigate sexual desire in their campaign armies), men are reluctant to consume it.
Yacon is a distant relative of sunflower. Of transparent white or yellowish pulp, this root has little variability. Its name comes from the word Quechua yaku that refers to the high water content of the root. The roots are eaten raw and are sweet, low in calories, with a juicy pulp similar to that of apple or watermelon.
In the Andes, yacon is often grated and squeezed through a cloth to make a sweet and refreshing drink. In times of the Spanish Colony it was used as food for sailors.
Currently, yacon is sought especially for its health benefits. The roots contain oligofructose, a sugar that is not metabolized by the human body. It is the main ingredient used to make syrup for diabetic patients. The leaves are used to prepare infusions and pills to lower cholesterol.
MACA (LEPIDIUM MEYENII)
Maca is a kind of unique and wonderful crop. The only cruciferous known to have been domesticated in the Americas, is found only in Peru, above 4,000 meters high, where no other crop offers reliable yields.
Maca root has a wide variety of colors ranging from yellow and whitish red to black. It maintains a long reputation among the local population for its miraculous properties. It is said to be a mental and physical invigorator, which reduces stress, strengthens the immune system, balances hormonal levels, increases sexual libido and stamina, improves male fertility and helps mitigate the negative effects of menopause in women. . It is extremely resistant and thrives in inhospitable environments, characterized by regular frosts and maximum monthly temperatures below 12 ° C on average during its growing season.
Experiments have also found that maca contains glucosinolates, substances that prevent the development of cancer cells. Traditionally, maca is boiled and then mixed in fruit and milk juices to make a thick smoothie. Fermented juice is also sometimes mixed with other liquors or used in desserts.
ARRACACHA (ARRACACIA XANTHORRHIZA)
The arracacha belongs to the same family of celery and carrot. Its three main varieties, with their distinctive roots of yellow, white and purple colors, are often planted interspersed with corn, beans and coffee.With a dense pulp, texture and flavor richer than potato, the root can be roasted or boiled and used as an accompaniment to flavor a variety of dishes from soups to desserts. Young stems are used in salads or as a cooked vegetable, and the leaves are often used to feed cattle. The small size of the arracacha starch grains makes it easy to digest, so it is good for purees or soups for babies, elderly or convalescent patients. Processed roots are used as thickeners for baby food formulas and instant soups.
ACHIRA (CANNA EDULIS)
The perennial achira comes from the same family that produces the lush and colorful lilies of canna found in florists and gardens around the world. Also known as edible canna or Queensland arrowroot, it was a staple of the ancient Peruvians.
The flowers vary in color, from red to yellowish orange. There are 30 to 60 species in America and Asia, most of which produce fleshy and starchy rhizomes. Fleshy rhizomes are traditionally baked in clay ovens, and are also used to produce a starchy flour to prepare breads and cookies, and thicken drinks and soups.
The root of achira has the largest starch granules that have been determined in a vegetable, visible to the naked eye. The particular composition of this high-value starch allows its extraction easily and economically, using home-made equipment. It is this industrial starch that provides an important source of income for the Andean communities, where it constitutes the main commercial crop of some towns.
WHERE THESE ROOTS AND TUBES GROW
The Andean region is one of the most important centers of crop origin in the world. It is a center of diversity – one of the regions of the world first indicated by Dr. Nikolai Vavilov for being an original plant domestication center – and it contains a high diversity of domesticated crops and their wild relatives.
The nine main crops of Andean roots and tubers extend throughout South America, from southeastern Venezuela to northwestern Argentina, with the greatest diversity concentrated in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.
These crops still remain largely unknown outside the Andean region, but they are of great economic and nutritional importance for Andean subsistence farmers who have cultivated them for generations, using local knowledge to develop an integrated network of complementary agricultural systems to ensure the food supply, and using natural selection to adapt each crop to a range of elevations and conditions.
These crops are found at altitudes ranging from 1,000 to 4,500 meters above sea level, and grow in a variety of ecosystems: in cold temperatures in the highlands, in the subtropical inter-Andean valleys, on both slopes of the Andes and even in the inhospitable subarctic puna. Adapted to harsh conditions for centuries, root and tuber crops have an extraordinary ability to resist disease and environmental stress. They grow well with few inputs; For example, farmers do not have to spend their scarce resources on expensive chemical fertilizers.