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Potatoes are the most loved vegetable in India

I have always been slightly suspicious of the view that there were no chillis in Asia till Europeans taught us how to grow them, having discovered them in South America.

(How did they reach Thailand, then? The Indian North East? Sichuan?)


But of the journey of one other ingredient, there seems to be no real doubt. The potato was discovered in South America and brought to India by Europeans. The credit for the potato’s introduction to the sub-continent usually goes to the Portuguese, at least partly on linguistic grounds. The Portuguese word for potato —batata—was absorbed into many Indian languages, suggesting that we first heard of the vegetable from the Portuguese.


   A fortnight ago, food writer Vikram Doctor challenged this view in The Economic Times, arguing that there was no tradition of potato cultivation in Goa despite its Portuguese past, and that, anyway, the early varieties of potatoes flourished in colder climates and as wonderful as Goa is, it is certainly not cold.


   Doctor argued that a familiar confusion was at work here. When the first ‘potatoes’ arrived in Europe, they were actually what we now call ‘sweet potatoes’. Only later, when what we now call the potato reached Europe did people realise that the sweet potato had a more versatile look-alike. Eventually the potato took on the name and the sweet potato was relegated to just being, well, the sweet potato, a poor cousin of the real potato.


   Vikram thinks that what the Portuguese brought to India was the sweet potato, which is also, in their language, a kind of batata. The real potato, he suggests, came much later. He considers the possibility that it was the British who planted it, in which case it didn’t get to India till much later than we thought. There are confirmed accounts of potatoes being planted in 1810-20 or so.


   If you take this as the time frame, then the way in which Indians use potatoes makes more sense. Potatoes are, by far, the most loved vegetable in India. But they tend to turn up in relatively recent dishes and often form a part of snacks rather than any version of haute cuisine.


   The old Indian saying that a person may be ‘like an aloo’ meaning that he or she would fit in anywhere, captures the way in which potatoes first entered our cuisine—added to dishes that already existed in some form.


   Almost everybody loves potatoes. But I cannot get too excited about fancy Indian potato dishes: all versions of dum aloo leave me cold. The simple home dishes like aloo jeera are the ones that have the most appeal for me. Here is a list of some of my favourite Indian aloo dishes.


Masala Dosa: Not a very traditional dish. The masala in the dosa is an aloo sabzi created by restaurateurs from Udipi in Karnataka who took a South Indian staple (the dosa), and turned it into a cheap and filling convenience food.


   Personally I believe the masala does not get the credit it deserves. If you are a carb-on-carb person then try a grilled sandwich made with the masala. It can be delicious.


Samosa: There are many ancestors of the samosa back in the Middle East, but rarely do they use potatoes to good effect. The aloo samosa is India’s distinctive contribution to the genre and remains one of the best and most satisfying dishes in the samosa family.


 "I reckon that aloo has become the classic stuffing because it fits so well with the taste of a paratha that it is the one stuffed paratha nobody can refuse."

Vada Pav: This is a late 20th century dish. It was created as a counterpart to the burger but it relies on a potato bonda. And the bonda predates the vada pav by several decades. The idea of a battered potato patty turns up in many cuisines. The bonda is popular in the South and the spherical Gujarati bataka vada is a classic of the genre.


Dahi Batata Puri: Where was this invented? You do find it in UP but it is not regarded as a particularly illustrious chaat dish there. My guess is that it found its greatest glory in Mumbai where potatoes and dahi were added to the basic puchka-batasha to create this, my favourite chaat dish.


Aloo Tuk: Good aloo tuk is hard to find. For the dish to work, the potatoes have to be salted before cooking so that the flesh is not too bland. The key to the dish is the crispness of the potato. Like one of Heston Blumenthal’s chips, each chunk of potato should give you both crunch on the outside and pure potato silkiness on the inside.


   It’s hard to get right at least partly because Indian potatoes often have too much sugar for successful frying.


Aloo Tikki: I can eat aloo tikkis every day. (And it often feels like I do!) I love them with channa, with a topping of two kinds of chutneys. It is now easier to enjoy them at home because I order the channa from my local chaatwallah, cook frozen tikkis and use bottled chaat sauces from Veeba or Cremica.


   It ain’t the real thing. But it works. For the real thing, I think Delhi’s Dal Chand Tikkiwalla, discovered and promoted selflessly by my friend Sangeeta Singh of the National Association of Street Vendors, is still the best.


Halwai Chips: Long before the West discovered expensive Kettle chips, we had our own version. In Mumbai, when I was growing up, there were shops that used to specialise in golden, freshly fried ‘wafers’ (as we used to call them in those days).  And there were halwais, who would slice the potatoes, dry them in the sun and then deep fry them.


   Sadly, all of them were hurt by the craze for industrial, mediocre wafers/chips/crisps.


Aloo Paratha: The paratha existed long before it was stuffed with aloo and, even now, potatoes are just one of a range of possible stuffings (keema, mooli, gobhi, paneer etc.).


   But I reckon that aloo has become the classic stuffing because it fits so well with the taste of a paratha (I have mine with dahi and pickle) that it is the one stuffed paratha nobody can refuse.


Aloo Puri: This is more an idea than a specific dish. I have had puri aloo with small, crunchy potatoes (the Gujarati version), with gravy with a slightly khatta taste (what we call Marwari aloo in Mumbai) and with a distinctively North Indian flavour in Delhi. But as a breakfast dish or as a food item to be packed and taken along for picnics or journeys, there is little to beat aloo puri.


Jakhiya Aloo: An Uttarakhand dish, though I have only had Manish Mehrotra’s superb recreation. Manish boils new potatoes, crushes them and deep fries them before rolling them in a Jhakiya (a sort of mustard) masala. He picked it up from his Uttarakhandi cooks, he says. Absolute heaven!


Goan Potatoes: As you may have noticed, Goans do eat potatoes but there are very few famous potato dishes from the coastal state. Perhaps that lends weight to Vikram Doctor’s view that no, the Portuguese did not introduce potatoes to their colonies. The fact that so many potato dishes can be dated to no further back than the 20th century may support his claim that the potato got here later than we think.


   But thank God it reached. Who can imagine today’s Indian cuisine without the aloo?




  • Ashwin Pinto 06 Nov 2021

    Aloo can be addictive. If you have a problem with blood sugar avoid.

Posted On: 06 Nov 2021 11:58 AM
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