It would be nice to think that Colombia has given the world of gastronomy more than a substantial Ajiaco. But then again, what would Ajiaco be without three types of Andean-grown potatoes? A rather dull pototo soup.
Via the bloodthirsty and potato-hungry conquistadores, the potato made its way to the Iberian Peninsula, surviving months at sea, the blast of tropical storms and carb-hungry pirates. Today, potatoes are a bastion of Spanish cuisine and served everywhere.
From Seville’s taperias to Barcelona’s potato and anchovy salad bars, Spain’s great kitchen achievements are mostly potato-inspired. The tortilla española (Spanish tortilla), the patatas bravas (Angry Potates) and huevos estrellados (Crashed Eggs and Potatoes) are served up in fancy Bogotá diners as international dishes when in fact, they should be branded, “Made in Boyacá.”
If the Spanish cooked it, the English craved it. The Spanish potato became a curiosity at court. Probably served as a side with the roast after the beheading of Anne Boleyn, the Tudors turned the Andean potato into a political statement. If they ate them, the Irish didn’t.
Henry VIII used the perennial potato to divide and conquer. Believed to be an aphrodisiac, this could explain why the Tudor despot almost outlived six wives.
As demand grew for potatoes in England, the Irish began to plant them in the firm belief that it would one day lead them out of darkness and towards the sun-washed corridors of Ellis Island.
But even as early as the 16th century, a Colombian staple was present at every table of European social strata. Well, just the two: those who owned the land, and those who didn’t.
The democratization of the potato undoubtedly begins at Plymouth Rock with the Mayflower pilgrims. This generous lot shared everything from corn to cranberries and North America’s first seasonal Solanum.
But they probably didn’t share out of the goodness of their hearts or because of deep-rooted religious faith (the potato is not mentioned in the Bible). They shared because they needed to survive the first winter.
But it was the Irish who turned the potato into a perfect stew and a cure for hangovers. And we all know what happened next: they exported their recipes to the four corners of the world.
When a potato famine struck the Emerald Isle in the mid 19th century, they packed their belongings, said their farewells and headed out to sea on anything that would float. Sooner or later, they would reach America.
Back to the New World
In the Big Apple, the Irish showed their entrepreneurial spirit. They opened pubs on every corner and raised an entire generation of future business leaders and Wall Street tycoons on potatoes.
If it weren’t for the hunger, you wouldn’t have the Hamptons.
Today, potatoes make up an essential part of the world’s food. Grown from the central flats of Mongolia to the fields of southern France, undoubtedly some of the best come from the United States.
Idaho is potato county par excellence. The Russet Burbank is just one of the 30 varieties grown in the state, and can be identified due to its elongated and netted skin.
And this brings us back to Colombia, a potato growing country with hundreds of varieties, some of which have yet to make it from the field to the market.
Although the numbers are sketchy, Colombia’s annual exports of frozen potato range near 600 metric tones, which represents for the economy US $1 million.
Compared with the rising prices of other commodities such as oil, gold and coal, potatoes don’t really influence the bottom line of the GDP and Colombia maintains a low potato profile.
But internal consumption continues to rise in a country with a population of 45 million, many of whom depend on meat and potatoes to get through the day.
An Ajiaco is a celebration of the Andean home’s hearth. On any given Sunday, families gather around a table to enjoy a hearty soup of three potatoes: the criolla, sabanera and pastusa.
Peeled, mashed and boiled, the papa pastusa may be similar to the Russet in starchiness and color, yet different due to its wet growing conditions.
It would be difficult to replicate an Ajiaco beyond the limits of Bogotá and its high altitude plateau. Ajiaco is not a dish for Cartagena, nor one for the stoic paisas of Medellin, and it definitely should not be served in the steamy kitchens of Cali.
It is a limited to the 8 million inhabitants of the capital.
But it has been recognized internationally as a unique Colombian dish, and this in itself, is a substantial contribution to the world of gastronomy and world history.
Make your own ajiaco:
2 lbs. papa criolla, chopped (or substitute Buttery Yellow potatoes)
1 lb. papa pastusa, rinsed and peeled (or substitute Russet potatoes)
1 lb. papa sabanera, rinsed and peeled (or substitute Red potatoes)
1 white onion, diced
2 ears of corn, halved
1 large chicken breast
1 bunch guascas (or substitute watercress)
2 cubes chicken bouillon
ají (cilantro-based hot sauce)
Place all ingredients except for capers, cream and hot sauce into a large pot with water and bring to a boil.
Once chicken is cooked, remove and shred. Set the chicken aside.
Continue cooking until papas criollas (small yellow potatoes) have almost completely dissolved and corn is tender. Add chicken. Serve with capers, cream and ají to taste.