Considering the multifarious uses we put it to, isn’t it time to give the humble potato its due?

Only two things in this world are too serious to be jested on, potatoes and matrimony. Old Irish saying

I think the potato is the unsung hero of the kitchen. Gobhi alu, alu methi, alu matar, alu beans, zeera alu, poori-alu, alu tikki, alu alu. And that’s just in my neck of the woods. Alu bonda, alu samosa, alu masala dosa, batata vada, ragda pattice. Of course potatoes are used to stretch a dish at short notice, but that’s not the whole story: they’re universally liked for their own taste. Is there any substitute for paratha with sookha alu, tempered with just zeera fried crisp? Or small whole potatoes added to a mutton curry and simmered until they’ve absorbed the masala?

I can’t imagine where we’d be without the potato and it’s startling to remember that it was introduced to Europe by Spain in the middle of the 16th century. Jiminez de Quesada’s forces had entered a village in what is now Colombia. In the Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson writes that the inhabitants had fled and the Spaniards found maize, beans and “truffles”. ‘Later accounts describe them as “of good flavour, a delicacy to the Indians and a dainty dish even for Spaniards”. These “truffles” were potatoes.’ But for many years the potato was not welcomed in Europe. One reason was its small size, wateriness and bitter taste. The other was the unsuitability of the climate of northern latitudes. Most interesting, however, was the reaction of Protestants in Scotland and the north of Ireland who refused to plant the potato because it was not mentioned in the Bible. The Catholic Irish dealt with this qualm - much like good priests in India – by sanctifying the potato. They sprinkled seed potatoes with holy water and planted them on Good Friday.

Many countries passed edicts to promote the cause of potatoes, but acceptability remained an issue for years. They came to India much later, and by about 1830 potatoes were grown on the terraced slopes near Dehra Dun. Now huge quantities are being grown for processing in several non-traditional states. According to some sources, annual diet of an average person includes about 33 kg of potato. Europe still has the highest per capita production in the world, but China is the world's largest potato-producing country, and nearly a third of the world's potatoes are harvested in China and India.

As George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin wrote, You say eether and I say eyether,/You say neether and I say nyther;/Eether, eyether, neether, nyther,/Let's call the whole thing off!/You like potato and I like potahto,/You like tomato and I like tomahto;/Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto!/Let's call the whole thing off! 

Potatoes arouse passions. When they were new and expensive, they had a reputation as an aphrodisiac, but today the passions are partisan. In The Physiology of Taste, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote “I appreciate the potato only as a protection against famine, except for that, I know of nothing more eminently tasteless.” But for those of us who disagree, the question is: potatoes mashed with butter and cream or plain - boiled with salt and freshly ground pepper? In Davidson’s words, “Untold and unthinking hordes would assert that chips/frites/French fries have no real competition, although their assertions might falter if they were introduced to the golden-topped butter-and-cream enriched slices, which are scalloped potatoes.”

I have to confess that I’m in the French fries camp, and the reason I ever eat at hamburger joints is because their French fries are like no other. Experts tell me I can make them as good at home if I soak the cut potato fingers in salt water before frying. I’ve tried. They say the fingers should be lightly fried once before the second, final frying. I’ve tried. They’re okay, but not as crisp and evenly golden as the fast food ones. Industry pundits say the crispness can be retained with a special coating on a special variety of potatoes, those which have higher solid and lower sugar content. Unlike in the West, I don’t have much choice; I buy the only kind of potatoes the vegetable shops stock. So I was delighted to discover that the same fries are available, frozen, in shops. They’re loosely packed so the whole lot doesn’t have to be used together; none of that thawing-till-softened followed by wrenching out-desired quantity. In fact the directions forbid thawing, so finger chips can be had at five minutes’ notice. One more frozen convenience, then; the only qualification being power supply.

Since we no longer have need of French fry recipes, this one for scalloped potatoes is worth using. Though it’s not the traditional one with cream, it’s very rich and satisfying.

SCALLOPED POTATOES

Serves 8

Ingredients

1kg potatoes

4 medium onions, thinly sliced

Boiling water

3 tsp salt

3 tbsp butter

2 tbsp flour

Pepper

1 tsp coarse red chilli flakes

2 cups milk

2 tbsp chopped parsley or chives 

Preheat oven to 200º C. Lightly grease a large baking dish. Wash, peel and thinly slice potatoes. Cook potatoes and onions, covered, in a little water and 2 tsp salt, until slightly tender. Drain. Melt butter in saucepan and remove from heat. Add flour, pepper, chilli flakes and remaining salt and stir till smooth. Blend in milk and cook over medium heat until thickened and smooth. In greased baking dish, layer one third of potato-onion mixture. Sprinkle with 1 tbsp parsley; top with one third of sauce. Repeat. Then add remaining potato-onion mixture and top with remaining sauce. Bake, uncovered, 30-40 minutes, or until top is browned and potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork.

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