This week we’re celebrating Chanukah by taking a look at the potato, which is part of the food eaten during this eight-day festival - latkes anyone? Potatoes also have a long and rich history as a crop of cultural significance, medicinal value, and a staple of diets all over the world, but did you know they are one of the 2700 members of the nightshade family and related to tobacco and chilies?
Originating from the Andes region in South America, potatoes, or Solanum tuberosum, are now the fifth most important crop in the world after wheat, corn, rice, and sugar cane and were domesticated between 7000 - 10000 years ago!
Faiths and Cultures:
Potatoes have been used by and been historically significant across many cultures, with the earliest archaeological evidence of potato tubers from central Peru dating back to 2500 BC! While potatoes were domesticated by the Andean people, wild varieties are still grown and eaten. Potato harvests were and are still celebrated by Andean peoples by piling soil into igloo-shaped ovens and baking the newly-harvested potatoes on ashes from burnt potato stalks. In the Andes, different varieties, or landraces, are cultivated at different altitudes and anywhere between 10 to 20 different landraces can grow in a single valley! In fact, because potatoes are typically grown as clones of tubers in commercial production, a single Andean field contains potatoes that are 90% more genetically diverse than the potato crops grown in the entire US!
Potatoes are also important in the Jewish celebration of Chanukah, where they are made into fried pancakes called latkes. Fried foods including latkes and doughnuts are made to celebrate the oil during Passover. Potato latkes have actually replaced cheese latkes, which celebrated the heroine Yehudis, also known as Judith, who saved her town and Israel in 164 BC from Holofernes, a Greek general who had captured the town’s only water supply, by plying him with salty cheese and wine before slaying him.
Since their introduction to Europe in the 16th century by the Spanish, potatoes have become a staple food and were a highly caloric solution to the many famines that occurred between the 1500’s and 1800’s. In fact, because farmers could grow potatoes in fallow lands while the soil was rested from growing grains and they were a highly productive crop, potatoes were also important in enabling people to escape poverty. They were one of the crops that helped establish the modern agriculture and pesticide industries as we know them today. The first pesticide was developed in response to infestations of the potato beetle across Europe after a farmer threw Paris green paint, a pigment that contained large amounts of arsenic, over his infested plants which killed the beetles. Arsenic-based pesticides were then used but as the beetles became immune to arsenic new pesticides had to be developed.
However, potatoes were introduced to England by Sir Walter James Raleigh in 1586, after the colonists he sent to Virginia returned with the plants. Its adoption was quite slow in England and Europe, while the Puritans opposed its cultivation because it wasn’t mentioned in the Bible. Eventually, potatoes were eaten and used in many other applications, such as in the 19th century when potatoes were used to make snuffboxes once the starch had been removed.
Medicinally, potatoes have been used in folk medicine to treat everything from burns to blocked arteries. In Indian folk medicine, potato skins are used with honey to treat burns, while raw potatoes have been used to make plasters for burns in European folk medicine and baked potatoes were used to treat frostbite. In Russian folk medicine, people over 40 are recommended to eat raw, grated potato daily before breakfast to increase blood flow to the heart and clear their arteries.
Some European farmers believed that potato tubers could cause fevers and leprosy or even be used as an aphrodisiac! However, potatoes actually have antiscorbutic properties that mean that they can prevent and cure scurvy. In European medicine, potato juice has also been used to treat pain caused by gout, rheumatism, and lumbago (lower back pain), and people even used to carry raw potatoes in their pockets to prevent rheumatism.
Originally, wild potatoes contained solanine and tomatine, toxic compounds that couldn’t be broken down by cooking. However, Andean peoples were able to eat these potatoes by dunking them in clay and water ‘gravy’. By doing this they were mimicking wild llamas that licked clay before eating the plants so that the solanine and tomatine were absorbed by the clay and could pass through their digestive systems safely. In fact, wild potatoes are still grown today for their frost resistance and clay dust can be bought in order to eat them.
These toxic compounds are also present in the stalks, leaves, unripe fruit and peel of modern potatoes, but become inert or decompose when potato skins are boiled, steamed, or baked. However, damaged or green potatoes and sprouts also contain these compounds as a result of exposure to light, and should not be eaten as they can cause headaches, nausea, diarrhea or stomach pain. Potatoes can also decrease blood clotting and may interact with blood clotting medication so you should consult a doctor before using potatoes as a treatment.
Potatoes are most famous for their use in cooking and have become a staple across cultures and cuisines. They are also quite nutritious, containing fibre, B vitamins, potassium, iron, calcium, zinc, and vitamin C. However, most of their nutritional value is in their skin, which can be lost when they are peeled before they are boiled or steamed. Potatoes are typically roasted, steamed, boiled and/or mashed, and can be found served with meats, in curries, pies, and soups, or fried in fritters or chips.
In Andean cuisine, potatoes have a wide range of applications and can be used to make toqosh by fermenting potatoes in stagnant water; almidon de papa (potato starch) by grinding potatoes to a pulp then soaking and filtering them; and chuño, which is similar to gnocchi and is found in Andean stews such as carapulcra, made by freezing and thawing potatoes several times. Chuño is also long-lasting and doesn’t require refrigeration so it is often made as a backup food supply in case of bad harvests and was used to sustain Inca armies.
Potato starch is also very useful and is made by crushing potatoes in order to damage the cells that contain starch grains. In the 1800’s, potato starch was boiled with sulphuric acid which changed it into glucose that could be fermented to create a spirit called “British Brandy”. In Sweden, potatoes were used to make vodka in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Potato starch can also be made into flour, which is used as a thickening agent and as a substitute for wheat flour in Jewish cooking during Passover.
Potato flour, not to be confused with potato starch, uses the whole potato rather than the extracted starch and is used to make cakes, gnocchi, and instant mashed potato. However, as it tends to be heavier than potato starch and potato starch flour it is less commonly used.
For some interesting uses of potatoes, have a look at these recipes:
Potatoes are herbaceous perennials with flowers that can range in colour from white and red to blue and purple which can attract pollinators such as bumblebees to your garden. They prefer sunny but cool spots with lots of space, protection from wind, and rich, well-drained soil, preferably with lots of organic matter such as manure. However, it is important to ensure that they aren’t overwatered as they can become more susceptible to pests, including water mould, which appears as purple-black spots on the leaves and caused the Great Famine in Ireland in the 1880s.
Potatoes should also not be planted in areas where chilis, capsicums, or eggplants have recently grown, as they are more at risk from nematodes. Also, the common method of growing potatoes in stacks of old tyres may also put you and your spuds at risk, as tyres can contain heavy metals which can be absorbed by the potatoes. Instead, stacks of polystyrene boxes with the bottoms cut out is a safer alternative.
Potato plants are slow-growing, usually taking between 12 to 20 weeks until they're ready to harvest depending on the variety, and they are ready when the lower leaves of the plant begin to yellow. At this point, your potatoes will be new or 'chat’ potatoes, and if you wait until all the leaves have died you get late season potatoes. Potatoes should either be left in the ground until you want to use them or stored in a cool, dark place with a covering of dirt. If they are exposed to light they can turn green and become unsafe to eat.
While you may consider planting old store-bought potatoes that have sprouted, doing this may introduce viruses into the soil so it is recommended that you find “seed” potatoes at your local nursery or through online nurseries, as they are certified virus-free and tend to taste better.
Happy growing, cooking, and Chanukah!