In 1928, British scientist Alexander Fleming discovered the first antibiotic by serendipity. One day, a petri dish of bacteria in his lab was colonized by a rare mold. Fleming discovered that the mold had a compound called ‘penicillin’, which inhibited bacterial growth.
Soil microorganisms or fungi produce penicillin to neutralize or kill other competing bacteria. After being isolated by scientists, penicillin was used for the treatment of infections in patients. The benefits were astonishing, gaining more prestige for western medicine.
While modern scientists celebrated the discovery, ancient Peruvians had been using a ‘natural penicillin’ for ages.
Tocosh: The Ancient Medicinal Dessert
Penicillin was not a specific Peruvian discovery. Medical knowledge has always been a patrimony of humanity. In this field, old civilizations were more advanced than the West. Ancient Egyptians, for example, applied decomposed bread over infected wounds. Moldy bread contained a strain of penicillin which killed bacteria.
In Peru, ancient civilizations ate pre-decomposed food to cure various illnesses. The dish was a form of pudding denominated Apis in Quechua. Pre-Inca natives prepared Apis with various ingredients: corn, ulluco tubers and arracacha (Andean white root). But no pudding type was as popular as Tocosh Apis, which was made with decomposed potatoes. Tocosh comes from the Quechua term Togosh, which means wrinkled and fermented. Inca healers prescribed Tocosh Apis for pneumonia, gastritis, ulcers, stomach or renal infections and hemorrhoids. Tocosh were made with the Andean potato species Solanum Tuberosum L. This species contained nutrients with magnificent health benefits.
Food Preservation in the Inca Empire
Modern Empires attain power through ‘capital accumulation’ and the appropriation of natural resources. The rise of the Incas was a bit different. The Incas never used capital, since their economy functioned by the exchange or trade of goods. How did they become an Empire then? What Incas did was to refine their agricultural methods to increase their food production. Thus, in times of drought, Incas kept a vast food storage to survive. While other tribes endured famine, Incas were enabled to conquer these weaker kingdoms. Among other factors, the Incas became an Empire through the means of ‘food accumulation’.
Yet, accumulating food brings the dilemma of how to preserve it for long periods.
The Inca agricultural output was far more than their citizens could eat. Instead of letting the food decompose, they practiced preservation methods. Most preservation methods were not invented by the Incas but their ancestors. Incas just developed these methods to set out a large scale production. One of them was to expose their crops to cold climates to freeze dry them. Dried fruits, vegetables and potatoes (chuño) were dried to fill their storage houses (Qullqas). It was through the experimentation of these techniques that Tocosh was made. Incas used to dig a hole near the river, place potatoes inside and cover them with straw. Eventually, water would stream in and macerate the potatoes for six months. Afterward, Tocosh were picked and dried under the sun. Note that Tocosh does not contain penicillin. (Penicillin cannot be digested). The Tocosh fermentation only produces compounds which have similar effects to penicillin.
These last few years had been exciting for Tocosh research. The latest scientific tests, undertaken by San Marcos University, corroborated the empirical claims of its healing properties. Tocosh were, in fact, beneficial in the treatment of pneumonia, gastritis, ulcers, stomach or renal infections and hemorrhoids. Another interesting study was conducted by the University of Trujillo. Researchers affirmed that Solanum Tuberosum L. has phytochemicals that help to prevent degenerative ailments as “atherosclerosis, type 2 diabetes, liver fibrosis, Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration and cancer.”
The Tocosh Challenge
Leaving aside the health benefits of Tocosh, there is a small inconvenience. The pudding emanates a strong and foul smell which may be nauseating. This odor is the reason for Tocosh persistent unpopularity. Most residents of metropolitan areas prefer not to have it. Some say that inhaling its smell is enough to vanish your appetite. Tourists may be the most mortified of all.
Some Peruvians still publish videos or memes on the web promoting ‘The Tocosh Challenge”, which consists of eating a plate of Tocosh. The Tocosh Challenge is most frequent in Lima for a particular reason. Lima residents pride themselves on their infinite love for pudding, especially Mazamorra Morada (purple corn pudding). The Limeño preference for pudding had gained them the label of Limeños Mazamorreros (Limeño pudding lovers). It is ironic, then, that as much as Limeños go crazy for pudding, many would run away from Tocosh Pudding.
There were many efforts to promote Tocosh pudding in Lima, since it represents Peru’s biggest market. Tocosh was cooked with cinnamon and cloves to reduce its odor, but the efforts were in vain.
In 2014, however, a group of entrepreneurs from Puno came up with a brilliant idea. Although Tocosh is dried under the sun, some liquid is still retained in it. Since this liquid produces the odor, Puneños decided to completely dehydrate the Tocosh and then grind it into fine particles. This odorless ‘Tocosh flour’ was used to invent a groundbreaking dessert: ‘Tocosh Ice cream’.
Tocosh Ice cream debuted in the 2014 International Gastronomic festival of Lima ‘Mistura’. It sold out in a few days and became the most successful dessert in the festival. People who formerly disliked Tocosh waited long lines to taste the ice cream version.
When it comes to Tocosh pudding, the challenge still remains. But in the case of Tocosh ice cream, entrepreneurs turned it into a real pleasure.𝔖