Chillies and Spuds

Closer than you think

Not many people will know that Chillies and spuds  have a lot in common. Not only will you find them together in some of the world’s finest cooking, but they both originally come from the same part of the world and also belong to the same biological family.

Both Chillies and potatoes originated in a region that shares modern-day southern Peru, and the extreme north-western part of Bolivia. If that’s not amazing enough, consider this. They both belong to the Solanaceae family, a classification they share with aubergines, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes.

That in itself is intriguing, but what is even more fascinating is that both Chillies and spuds  were among the first-ever domesticated vegetables in Peru. They were cultivated there as early as 10000 years ago. This means they have been found together in cooking for thousands of years

Archaeologically verified evidence dating back to 2500 BC was found in a coastal site in Ancón, Central Peru, that potatoes were already being eaten at that time. The earliest archaeological evidence of Chillies being consumed was found in the Guitarrero Cave  in Peru. This evidence links Chillies being eaten as early as 8,500 BCE. This is not to say that Chillies were cultivated before potatoes . It is simply that potatoes’ do not preserve well. This has made finding earlier proof of their use for archaeological purposes more difficult

Today, it is difficult to imagine cooking without Chilles or spuds, but there was a time (not so long ago) when they were unknown outside of South America.  It took Christopher Columbus to bring  the first Chillies back the old world in 1492, after he found them in the West Indies. It would take another fifty-eight years before spuds appeared on the scene.


Chillies and potatoes in Europe

Spain and Hungary

Potatoes arrived in Europe sometime before the end of the 16th century by three possible ports of entry. The first route is that they were brought to Spain from Peru by Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada in 1550. The second possible port of entry was that they were first introduced to the Canary Islands (from South America), where they were grown for the first time and then sent on to Europe. The third possibility is that Sir Francis Drake brought potatoes to England and grew the first crop of them on his estate near Youghal in Co. Cork in about 1585.

It is not well documented when Chillies and spuds  first started becoming combined in European cooking. However, it was probably the Spanish who first did so.  This was probably because they had seen and tasted the potato dishes of the Incas in Peru. It was a way of cooking they brought home with them

The dishes the Incas made would have undoubtedly contained hot Chillies in their original form. The dishes made in Spain would have been milder to accommodate the Spanish palate.  This was a trend that has continued until today. Spanish food calls more for mild pimentón  (paprika type Chilli powders) than the hotter tastes enjoyed in current day Peru.

Examples of Spanish potato dishes with Chillies include Patatas Bravas, Patatas a lo pobre (poor Man’s Potatoes), Papas Arrugadas con mojo (from the Canary islands), Patatas al Pil Pil (spicy garlic Spanish Potatoes’),  Patatas a la Riojana (potato and chorizo stew), Tumbet (Spanish ratatouille) and Polbo á Feira (a.k.a. Pulpo a la Gallego)

There is varied opinion on how Paprika arrived in Hungary. Some historians believe it arrived when the Turks invaded the country. Others name the Portuguese as bringing it to Hungary. When potatoes first arrived in the country, it was not well documented either. However, when they did arrive, it didn’t take Hungarian chefs to combine them with traditional Hungarian dishes like Goulash, Paprikas Krumpli, Paloc Soup, Lebbencs Soup, Paprikash (meat or chicken combined, broth, paprika, and sour cream), Hungarian Potato soup (Krumplifőzelék) and Hungarian tripe Stew ( Pacal Pörkölt)

On into the rest of the world

India, China and Africa

From Europe, potatoes also quickly found their way to other parts of the world. Potatoes were introduced to the Indian subcontinent by the Portuguese and the Dutch. However, it was not until the British colonised India that potatoes were to become popular throughout the country. The British made it their mission to promote potatoes as a vegetable that could alleviate widespread hunger in the country. The Indians agreed, and before long potatoes were widely grown and consumed in the country.

Indian chefs quickly identified the potatoes’ ability to combine well with Chillies and other ingredients. They soon added them to their recipes. Recipes like Aloo mater (Potatoes and peas), Poori Masala, Aloo curry, Saag Aloo ( potato and spinach), Aloo Bonda and Aloo Kurma were created or adapted to use potatoes. The Indians loved potatoes so much that today India is second only to China in the consumption of these tubers

Potatoes were probably introduced in China in the 17th century towards the end of the Ming Dynasty. Potatoes probably reached China’s coasts via European ships, around the same time Russian traders introduced them to central China. Today, China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of potatoes and Chillis .

The Chinese use potatoes with Chillies in dishes like Chinese Chilli potatoes, Szechuan Chilli potatoes, Liang Ban Tu Dou (Spicy crisp potato salad) and Chinese stir fried shredded potatoes (Tudou si),

While Chillies are widely loved in Africa, potatoes take second place as a starch in African cuisine. In Africa, starches like sweet potatoes, rice and maize porridge take preference. This is not to say that dishes aren’t made with Chillies and spuds . They are it is just more likely that dishes made with Chillies will be served with these other starches. Examples include Nigerian Potato Peppersoup, Ndole from Cameroon, Potjie Kos from South Africa and West African Peanut soup from Sierra Leone.


The list of where Chillies and potatoes goes on . There are many more countries where Chillies and Potatoes are combined to make some fine cuisine. Notable examples are Brazil, Pakistan and Peru . In Peru where the potato originally comes from, dishes like Causa Rellena,   Papa Rellena, Causa a la Limeña , Ajiaco ( Peruvian potato soup and Papa a la Huancaína all contribute to the great cuisine that Peru  is known for

Image credits

Causa a la Limeña :  Allen Gathman  / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 /via Flickr

Yoghurt potato curry :    Soniya Goyal   / CC BY-SA 2.0 /via Flickr


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