The HT Brunch Celebrating Simplicity Series: The humble, ubiquitous spud!

The potato is adored by practically everyone in India, but it is severely underestimated
Potatoes are also not empty calories, as they are thought to be(Shutterstock)
Potatoes are also not empty calories, as they are thought to be(Shutterstock)
Published on Jul 26, 2020 07:26 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByDr Kurush F Dalal

Batata khaaun khaaun batatyasaarkha zalay,” said a Maharastrian friend’s mother to me, many years ago. It meant that after eating so many potatoes, I now looked like one. That is, fat! I’m sure almost every single local language in India has a phrase that mirrors this one.

I’ve always taken high umbrage to this. Mainly because there are many, many factors that I have worked hard to master, to get as fat as I am. Also, because eating potatoes doesn’t really make you fat.

Yes, this is true. Potatoes are a lean food in themselves and it’s the fat in which they are cooked that makes you gain weight. Potatoes are also not empty calories, as they are thought to be. You couldn’t be more wrong. Potatoes are full of almost all the nutrients a human being needs to survive. You could survive on boiled potatoes and a glass of milk for an entire year, and suffer no real deficiencies. The only rub is that the nutrients in potatoes are right under the skin and if you peel off the skin before cooking them, you lose all the amazing phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, zinc, fibre, Vitamin C and Vitamin B6. 

The famous English adventurer, Sir Walter Raleigh, introduced potatoes to the English in 1598, who in turn brought it to India

As though all this isn’t enough, they are great for people with heart trouble, because potatoes have zero cholesterol! Taters also contain a chemical called choline, which helps with muscle movement, mood upliftment, and with learning and retaining what you have learned. This means potatoes are really great for students! Potatoes have a decent bit of protein and they also help prevent constipation, a fact even the Incas knew. 

The everything food

Potatoes are the world’s fourth largest staple after wheat, corn and rice. Every day, over one billion people eat at least one potato. More than 300 million metric tonnes of potatoes are harvested each year. There are over 4,000 varieties of potatoes and they come in all colours from black to purple to red, orange, a pale cream and every shade in between.

The reason for this huge variety is the fact that it can be easily grown anywhere on the planet, and from a small piece of potato you can harvest a large number of potatoes. They are naturally resistant to most pests (not including rodents) and have an enormous biodiversity.

In The Martian (2015), Matt Damon is seen growing potatoes on Mars
In The Martian (2015), Matt Damon is seen growing potatoes on Mars

All of this is why India has a Central Potato Research Institute (CPRI) in Shimla, which continuously monitors the health of the potato in India. The CPRI says the humble spud has substantially contributed to sustaining food production in our country and is a major weapon in the alleviation of hunger. If we can ramp up production in India, we could solve a major part of the nation’s hunger issues with the simple potato. 

Potatoes are not just a food – they are also used in the production of ethanol, which is consumed as vodka and can also be added to petrol to make a hybrid fuel, thereby decreasing our reliance on petroleum imports. It’s a great cattle food and is also used to make glue, grease and biodegradable plates. 

300 years young

Interestingly, though it is found in practically every corner of India, the potato is not an autochthonous vegetable. It is a New World ingredient that came to us thanks to the colonials. The potato is endemic to the Andes in South America and was a staple food of the Inca Empire. The Spanish and Portuguese were responsible for bringing it to the Old World, and it was the famous English adventurer, Sir Walter Raleigh, who introduced it to the English in 1598, who in turn brought it to India.

It’s hard to believe that 300 years ago, there was no vada-pav in Maharashtra, no aloo parathas in North India and no masala dosa in South Indian homes

It was already here thanks to the Portuguese, but it was the British who took to it in a huge way in the 17th century, and actually popularised it all over the subcontinent. The potato was the petrol that fuelled the British armed forces and it was the army that was responsible, according to Indian food historians, for its introduction and popularity in India. Thus, the Indian love affair with the potato is actually less than 300 years old.

It’s hard to believe that 300 years ago, there was no vada-pav in Maharashtra, no aloo parathas in North India, no masala dosa in South Indian homes and no luchi alu’r dum in West Bengal! Potatoes were surprisingly welcomed in India, unlike in the Germanies in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 17th century, potatoes were thought to be aphrodisiacs eaten by the rich. Common folk wouldn’t touch them. However, it was the same humble potato that saved the German nation from starvation during and after the Second World War.

Apun ka aloo!

Potatoes are the heart and soul of much of Indian cooking and they are grown all over the country. They make a good, hardy monsoon crop and are grown in the foothills of the Himalayas, the rain shadow regions of the Deccan, the Cauvery and Krishna basins, in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar on the Ganges and her tributaries and in almost every corner of India. With the exception of the Jains, there is probably no community that doesn’t eat them with gusto and joy. Their ability to grow anywhere led them to become one of the first vegetables grown in space in 1995, and made them the protagonists in the 2015 Hollywood blockbuster, The Martian

The rotund spud is so at home in India that it has become part and parcel of our daily humour and has been immortalised in the political slogan, ‘Jab tak rahega samose mein aloo, tab tak rahega Bihar mein Laloo.’

From the teeny guti aloo of Assam to the hefty wafer batatas of Maharashtra, the potato has India’s heart (and stomach!). 

The writer is an academic, archaeologist and a culinary anthropologist. He is also the consulting editor of Live History India.

Next week: Prasad Bidapa celebrates simplicity in fashion

From HT Brunch, July 26, 2020

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