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Know Your Ulluco

August 26, 1993|LAURIE OCHOA

Food history never stops. Consider that 25 years ago few in this country had heard of the fuzzy green fruit we now know as kiwi, that cherimoyas and baby carrots were the stuff of futurist fantasies.

Most agree it was the Spaniards who left Peru with the potato hundreds of years ago, and changed the way Europe ate. Only in recent years have people begun to realize that some of the crops left behind in the Andes could change the way we eat in the next 20 years--from agronomists in Kenya, looking for nutritious, pest-resistant crops to feed developing populations, to organic farmers seeking lessons in ancient growing techniques, to marketers in the United States hoping to catch on to the next big food trend.

So far, commercially grown native Peruvian crops aren't available fresh in this country. The United States restricts most new crops that come from their native country of origin. The reason: native diseases and pests usually tag along.

"Tropical fruit is a little easier to bring in," says Freida Caplan, the woman who introduced the kiwi to U.S. consumers through her company Frieda's Finest. "Fruit isn't grown in the ground like potatoes, where it can get soil-borne diseases."

What is trickling out of Peru are seeds. Quinoa, for instance, is now grown in Colorado, and kiwicha , or amaranth, is grown in Mexico and sold in the United States.

Oca has been grown in New Zealand (where it's called the "New Zealand yam") for the past 20 years, though even this non-native version of the crop has not been allowed in the United States.

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"I always have to tell people," Caplan says, "that the yellow Finnish potato we sell came to Finland from Peru."

"There's been a lot of hemming and hawing, but people from the United States and Peru need to sit and talk this out," says Hubert Zandstra, director general of the International Potato Center, which has the world's largest potato germplasm collection and is devoting much of its resources to Andean root and tuber crops. "It's a challenge, but it's also an opportunity. New Zealand, for example, has cleaned up with crops like oca . Certainly U.S. importers are explorers. The market is there."

And some of the business networks for distributing the crops are already established. Fru-Veg, a Miami-based company, now imports two non-native crops from Peru: asparagus and mangoes.

"I would say Peru is becoming a big competitor in South America," says Fru-Veg's Conchita Espinosa, "second only to Chile."

Chile, which has become a major player in importing fruits and vegetables to the United States, is considered the model in South America, the inspiration that keeps fans of Andean crops hopeful.

"All I know is that there is a world market for foods that taste good," Caplan says. "Customers always tell us, 'We'll try anything that's new.' If we can get it, we can sell it."

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Which of the ancient Andean crops will break out as the next kiwi? Here's a guide to a few of the contenders.

*Potatoes: You've seen purple potatoes; you've tasted the buttery Yukon Golds. And of course, you've worked your way through common russets, whites and reds. But have you tasted the intensely yellow amarilla or Limena potato, widely thought of as Peru's best-tasting potato? Or the ccompis , round and white-fleshed, which the people in Cuzco tout as the Andes' best? Or the llamellina , with a surprising, smooth texture, almost like an avocado? Or any of the couple dozen other varieties available in a typical Andean street market? The point is, for a country that counts itself as a spud-loving nation, we have only begun to eat.

* Oca: They're eating it in New Zealand. Long and dimpled, it comes in all sorts of colors, including bright purple. It tastes starchy like potato, though some are slightly sweet.

* Mashua: Also called anu , mashua is believed to be an anti-aphrodisiac. It's a tuber that resembles oca . Besides taste, how do you tell them apart? Look at the eyes-- oca is the one with the eyes most evenly distributed. And while both tend to taper at one end, mashua is the one with the thin tail. A generous description of the taste of bitter raw mashua is "like a sharp radish." Others say it's, "uh, not nice." But once it's exposed to sunlight and roasted, the vegetable becomes sweet and delicious.

* Ulluco: They're yellow, they're red, they're white and freckled too. Ulluco, also called olluco and papalisa, has a slippery, moist flesh, slightly crunchy, with a texture and flavor that reminds some people of beets. The canary-yellow varieties, often spotted with fucshia, are popular in Peru for their striking color.

* Arracacha: The tops look like celery and the roots look like overgrown white carrots. (Yellow and purple varieties exist too.) It's served boiled or fried; and it's been used in baby formulas too. Its taste combines the flavors of celery, cabbage and roasted chestnuts.

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