A few weeks ago, I wrote in praise of fish and chips. Something in the article intrigued a reader, KS Narayanan, who divides his time between Delhi and Bombay and reads Brunch in both cities. I guessed that it was not all my research about frying fish that had interested Mr Narayanan because he is the managing director of McCain in India. If you work in the food business, then you already know what McCain is. If not, here’s what you need to know: McCain is to French fries what Microsoft is to software. One out of every three French fries consumed anywhere in the world today is made by McCain.
McCain is a massive family-owned Canadian company so my guess was that, like many other multinationals, it was looking at India as a potential market. I knew already that some of its products had found ready acceptance in Indian hotels and restaurants. If you ask chefs for hash browns they will refer to them as “McCain potatoes” which is flattering for McCain but not entirely accurate because the hash brown is only one product in McCain’s range.
McCain’s principal claim to fame is the French fry. As most of us already know, the potatoes we buy at the sabziwallah are unsuited to frying. Most have a high water content (“low solids” is how the potato trade would put it) and are full of sugar. Worst still, the potatoes you buy today may have been harvested weeks ago. In the interim, their sugar content will have grown. (When your sabziwallah sells you ‘diabetic’ potatoes, that means that they have been recently harvested so the sugar content is not so high – but there’s still plenty of sugar in them.)
When we cook Indian food, the quality of the vegetables does not matter so much because our spices tend to mask the flavour of the ingredients. Western food, however, is a different story. You can’t really make a good salad with the tomatoes sold by our sabziwallah for instance (most hotels have special suppliers and ketchup manufacturers use pre-packaged puree) and any chef who tries to fry or sauté local potatoes will end up with a discoloured soggy mess.
In this situation, the best alternative is the frozen, pre-cut potato. Such companies as McCain freeze fries and send them all over the world. All a chef has to do is to put them in the deep-fat frier and he gets perfect fries each time. When the food giants launch an innovation such as the hash brown in a new market, the effect is instantaneous: it suddenly appears on every menu.
Frequently, potato trends are set by the fast food chains. McCain has a strong relationship with McDonald’s. So the fries you get at most McDonald’s all over the world are probably McCain products. So is the hash brown that McDonald’s serves at breakfast. I can see the logic in using imported, frozen French fries but I always feel a little sad that the rush for imports does nothing for our local potatoes. Surely, it is possible to grow better potatoes in India? There has to be some way in which you and I can buy good quality potatoes for our aloo-tikkis or our samosas.
Which is where Mr Narayanan re-enters our story. Contrary to what I believed, Mr Narayanan was not just some import manager for McCain’s. He informed me that they actually grow their own potatoes in Gujarat and that the fries that McCain sells are usually 100 per cent Indian-grown. I was intrigued enough to meet Mr Narayanan who turned up in my office carrying two sacks of potatoes. Yes, he said, when McDonald’s had first come to India and launched the search for the perfect fry, most of the potatoes had been imported from McCain’s global plants. But now, the company used Indian potatoes.
Mr Narayanan explained to me that while there are hundreds of varieties of potatoes in the world, only few are regarded as suitable for frying. In the US, they are the long Russet (often from Idaho) while in England they prefer Maris Piper. Neither variety is popular with Indian farmers who use strains that are regarded as totally unsuitable for frying by all experts.
McCain set up a Rs 100 crore plant in Mehsana in Gujarat in 2007 and worked with local farmers to grow international varieties. But neither Maris Piper nor the Russet took to Indian conditions. So, the company’s agricultural scientists worked to find new varieties till they came up with two strains that thrived in India. Once they had the potato, the rest was easy.
Well, relatively easy, at any rate. Mr Narayanan had brought along bags of both kinds of potatoes but the way he told it, the process of making a French fry was not easy. The potatoes were peeled and sliced automatically before being very quickly fried (or par-fried). Only then were they frozen and put into packets.
Why, I asked, were they fried? It turns out that potatoes are what scientists call ‘unstable’, which is to say, they keep changing even after they have been harvested: the water content varies, the sugars go up etc. Par-frying stabilises the potato. From that point on, the potato stops changing.
It also makes for a better French fry. Chefs will tell you that the best fries are fried twice, once to cook the insides and the second time to ensure a crispy outside. Par-frying is, effectively the first frying. Now, a chef only has to empty the packet into his fryer to get crispy, perfect fries.
But the process can get more complicated. French fries collapse about ten to 12 minutes after they have left the frier. They become soggy and virtually inedible. So, food companies like McCain have created an invisible coating that goes on the fries before they are frozen. This coating keeps the fries crisper for longer. Restaurants can buy coated and uncoated fries (McDonald’s uses uncoated) depending on their preference.
McCain thinks that the next growth area is the Indian home market. Its leading product in this sector is the aloo tikki. This is made by shredding the potatoes, par-boiling them, par-frying them and adding spices before shaping them into little tikkis. Mr Narayanan assured me that the ready-made tikkis needed hardly any oil for cooking. I was leery of this claim so he gave me a packet.
That evening, at home, I opened that packet and noticed, to my relief, that you could cook from frozen (no thawing required). Mr Narayanan had said to use a tawa but I used a non-stick frying pan and a tiny quantity of oil. To my surprise the tikkis cooked perfectly. They were crisp, tasty and held their shape.
I wanted to see if they worked as a chaat dish. I got an order of spicy channa from Defence Colony market and put the channa on the tikki. The combination worked perfectly. I then tried eating the tikkis with garlic chutney. Perfect again.
Encouraged, I opened a packet of McCain’s Potato Wedges. We all know what they are like when they are fried. (Those are the wedges you get at most restaurants.) But Mr Narayanan had assured me they could be baked for a healthier snack. So I divided the packet into two – half went in the oven (with a little olive oil sprinkled on top) and while the other half went in the microwave.
As I had expected, the microwave wedges were a disaster (microwaves are not very good if you want crisp food) but the oven wedges were a surprise. They lacked the plump fleshiness of fried potatoes (perhaps I just kept them in the oven too long) but they were crisp and delicious.
My experiments with Mr Narayanan’s potatoes continue. I have still to sauté the raw fresh potatoes he brought me from Gujarat but I am vastly impressed by the quality of his frozen potatoes.
The best part is that they are relatively healthy. It is well-known that potatoes themselves are full of potassium, iron and vitamins while being entirely free of saturated fats. The problem, we always say, is with what you do to the potato – few of us eat simple boiled potatoes. But bizarrely enough, the fast food fried potato is actually healthier than many of the alternatives. As McDonald’s never tires of reminding us, one portion of McDonald’s French fries (made by McCain) has 290 calories, zero sugar and 14.1 per cent of fat. A packet of salted peanuts has 644 calories and a shocking 52 per cent fat. But most of us will eat the nut and eschew the fry, believing that this is a healthier option.
Bhujia is as unhealthy (between 560 to 630 calories) and packed with fat (between 40 to 50 per cent). Even biscuits, which we all regard as healthier than potatoes, are full of calories (around 500 calories for a serving the size of an order of fries), fat (around 25 per cent) and sugar (between 12 to 25 per cent).
In the light of all this, we should not feel too bad about potatoes. If you get the right quality, they can be delicious and less unhealthy than many of the alternatives. (Potato crisps or what the Americans call chips and we call wafers are a different story, however.) Mr Narayanan says his tikkis are already widely available. And he has many other products on offer. I haven’t tried them yet. But yes, the tikki is a breakthrough. And it will become a staple in my freezer.