Bringing Bolivia’s Flying Potato from the Jungle to the City

Wandering around other peoples’ gardens is a national pastime in the UK, so a couple of weeks ago I became intrigued about a number of rural communities in Madidi National Park, part of the upper Amazon river basin in Bolivia. I wanted to visit the indigenous Leco communities in the Apolo region to learn more about their family vegetable plots. These communities are improving practices for family gardens, as well as for coffee, cattle ranching, incense, and small livestock management, which are a key piece of the Life Plan developed for their indigenous territory. The organization I work for, the Wildlife Conservation Society, is supporting these efforts as part of our long-standing relationship with the Leco Indigenous Peoples Organization in Apolo (CIPLA).

After scheduling a visit to the region, we were assigned a companion for the week, Dionisio Gutierrez, previously a Leco leader and the first-ever elected Leco mayor of Apolo. There is now a second elected Leco mayor, which is quite a change from the cultural repression and political marginalization the Lecos previously suffered for centuries. The community projects, combined with a legal process that resulted in a partial land title and a process to build territorial management capacity in indigenous organization and communities, reinvigorated Leco culture in the region and strengthened CIPLA. Dionisio is now working for CIPLA on community projects, especially livestock, coffee and family garden plot projects.

Much of my family are keen gardeners and some of my earliest memories are harvesting potatoes, strawberries, carrots, mint, and inevitably Brussel sprouts and cabbage, with my grandparents for Sunday lunch. Because of this, I kind of know my herbs and vegetables, and while wandering around a vegetable plot in the Leco community of Inca, I spotted a couple of plants that looked unfamiliar. At first, I thought they were weeds, but the elderly Leco couple showing us around had pointed at a corner of the plot reserved for herbs. My fellow traveler for this trip, photographer and WCS Trustee Eleanor Briggs, knew what they were immediately. The first was long coriander (Eryngium foetidum), known as sacha culantro or cilantro de monte in Apolo. Although native to Mexico and Latin America, it is widely used in Vietnamese and Thai cuisine. The second herb was another native to Latin America, wormseed or Jesuit’s tea (Dysphania ambrosioides), commonly known in Bolivia as paico or epazote.

These personal discoveries awakened the possibility in my mind that these novel ingredients might interest another of our conservation partners, Gustu in La Paz, a prize-winning restaurant exclusively committed to sustainably produced and fair trade Bolivian ingredients. Since Gustu is always looking for new flavors and ingredients, and we were returning to La Paz in a couple of days after 10 days in the field, I asked Dionisio if we could arrange for a small sample to take back to Gustu. Then I remembered that on a couple of previous trips to Apolo, people had talked about something called papa al aire or air potato – I had even seen one once, recalling its strange shape. Maybe we should take some of them, too? Dionisio took us to his mother-in-law’s garden and there it was, the strangely shaped potato with a unique skin texture growing on a vine. We arranged to take some of those too. It turns out that in Peru this potato is already being used at Central, known as the air yam or papa voladora (Dioscorea bulbifera), though it is not native to Latin America, rather Africa and southern Asia.

The next day we visited another Leco community, Santo Domingo, to inspect the blossoming vegetable plots that have been adopted by enthusiastic local schoolchildren, and after pressing some sugar cane in a local press and adding the juice from an orange lemon, we drank the resulting guarapo from gourds – an intoxicating and refreshing combination. But it was a trip with Dionisio to some local chacos, or agricultural fields, that I asked some local villagers about a tuber we had been told about in a couple of villages, and there amongst the bananas, beans and manioc was another surprise ingredient (and Asian native), the purple yam (Dioscorea alata). Closely related to the papa voladora, and known in Apolo as mocolo, this underground, brightly colored, and odd-shaped tuber is relatively sweet and used as a bread equivalent in the Leco communities, usually eaten at breakfast with coffee.

A Leco community member in her family garden.
Close up of mocolo, a sweet tuber used as a bread equivalent in Leco communities.
Dionisio Gutierrez (CIPLA), Rob Wallace (WCS), and Marsia Taha (one of Gustu´s head chefs) sit at Gustu discussing new ingredients from Leco communities used to experiment and create specialty dishes.
Gourd filled with a delicious guarapo - a mixture of pressed sugar cane and juice from an orange lemon
Dionisio Gutierrez's mother-in-law holds a papa al aire (or air potato) from her garden.
Sacha Culantro, also known as long coriander, in a Leco family vegetable plot at the Inca community.

The following day, Eleanor and I visited Gustu to show the ingredients to one of the head chefs, Mauricio López. He enthusiastically examined each one, declaring that three out of four (sacha culantro, papa al aire and mocolo) are ingredients that Gustu had not previously used because they had no prior Bolivian source. Gustu has a 0-kilometer policy, only using ingredients grown in Bolivia.

Following an invitation from Mauricio, 24 hours later, Eleanor and I were sitting at the Chefs Table in Gustu’s kitchen receiving the first special dish created with the day’s ingredients: a sublime miso-like air-potato soup. Marsia Taha, the other head chef at Gustu, keenly expressed her amazement at the papa al aire, which she had recently seen at Central and told us a little about the process behind how she and Mauricio had experimented with the new ingredients over the course of the day. The second special dish, another bonus past the restaurant’s Bolivian tasting menu, was a delicate trout served with some fried papa al aire and a grilled whole mocolo. But the show stopper was dessert, bright purple mocolo pieces immersed in the concentrated sweet juice, slightly toasted sacha culantro leaves, and a blackberry concentrate. At the end of the dinner, the chefs agreed to meet with Dionisio to discuss the possibility of providing Gustu with a little more of each ingredient for experimentation.

Dionisio was thrilled to meet with Marsia, and their resulting conversation covered mocolo, paiko, sacha cilantro, and papa al aire, as well as seasonally available flying leaf cutter ants (Atta sp.), organic shade-grown arabica coffee, sugar cane, orange lemons, citrus fruits in general, native stingless bee honey and organic free-range eggs. It turned that out Gustu needed a source for all of these ingredients, and Dionisio happily agreed to go back to Apolo and consult with the Leco communities and leadership about building a supply system to feed this need. He agreed to send a couple of kilos of each of the new tubers to facilitate further experimentation. Keen to invite the chefs to Apolo in the near future, he stressed that the communities would be eager to learn to develop new ways to use traditional foods from the chefs.

Maintaining the use of traditional ingredients is one of several challenges that exist in retaining and promoting the Leco culture in the future. But as we stepped out of Gustu and back into the midday sun, it seems we’ve made a bit of progress, and I couldn’t help but smile for the rest of the day.