The ubiquitous potato is undoubtedly the most loved vegetable- be it Europe, the Americas, Oceania or India with the possible exception of the South-East Asian countries. Without going into the debate whether the Portuguese introduced potatoes in India or if Wajid Ali Shah improvised his biryanis with potatoes as a novelty or because of his poor finances, the fact remains that India, notwithstanding her incredible variations of regional cuisines, cannot survive without her humble potatoes.
Talk about “batata” (the Portuguese word for potato) in Western India and you will have Batata Vada, Aloo Bonda, Batata Puri, Vada Pav, Batata nu Shak, all made out of the modest potato……… North India lives and dies by “Aloo” (as potato is known in most other parts of India). You start your day with Aloo Paratha or Aloo Puri, move on to lunch with Aloo Methi or Dum Aloo or Aloo Jeera or Aloo Palak. If you feel pangs of hunger in the evening, there is Aloo Chaat, Aloo Tikki, Aloo Burger to choose from. Lunch and dinner items are interchangeable……… Move East, and you see potatoes everywhere. Ask a Bong to shed his potatoes (both literally and figuratively) and you will be charged with losing your mental balance- the local parlance being “Apnar ki aloo-r dosh achhe?” (“Are you nuts?”). You will find potatoes in everything under the sun. Aloo Sedhho Bhaat (mashed potato-Bengali style with steamed/sticky rice)? Aloo; Mangsho-r Jhol/Murgi-r Jhol (Mutton Curry/Chicken Curry)? Aloo; Biryani? Aloo; Aloo Posto (a dish made with potatoes and poppy seeds)? Aloo; Aloo-r Chop (fritters made with spiced mashed potatoes)? Aloo; Shukto (a typical Bengali vegetable curry)? Aloo. The list is endless. Even, many of the fish recipes contain potatoes……… Down South? You still cannot get rid of potatoes. There can be no Masala Dosa without potatoes. You can even serve the bhaji without the crepe. Potato Roast, Potato Podimas, Urulaikizhangu Thokku, Avial- all must have aloo!
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”
When the great polymath, Leonardo da Vinci said these words, he was definitely not thinking about potatoes. Perhaps the anatomy of The Vitruvian Man occupied his faculty. Yet, potato fits the bill perfectly. The halo around the unassuming potato glows in its simplicity. Like putty, you can sculpt it the way you want. It does not have the haughtiness of truffles or caviar, nor does it possess the snootiness of Kobe beef. Potatoes are like a jovial socialite, mingling with everyone and spreading cheer. A day without potatoes is a day better forgotten.
You may not quite associate it with what you call haute cuisine, but you simply cannot do without the allure of them in your daily life. The unpretentious home dishes made with potatoes bring the most joy. No fancy restaurant can match the scope of potatoes with that of the street food magicians. From the unheard-of-in-the-rest-of-the-world burger-patty made with potato, to aloo chaat, to the Puchka filling to potato salad, to potato raita, to mashed potatoes, to hash browns, to potato pizza, to fries, to potato soup, to roast potatoes with your steak, to Hasselback potatoes, to Lyonnaise potatoes, to Parmentier potatoes, to potato Vodka, to the Irish Poitin- can you name any other vegetable so prolific with its presence and possibilities?
Ask anyone, what his favourite vegetable is, and hardly any would say “potato”. But take the potato out of their lives and they would be gasping for breath. Such is its omnipresence and pervasiveness that we take it for granted. As simplicity defines potatoes, so are the dishes made out of them. I find the most unassuming potato recipes, the most fascinating, be it in our homes or around the street corner or at an unfancy local eatery. I never get tired of potatoes.
Aloo Kabli– Now, don’t ask me if “Kabli” has anything to do with Kabul. I don’t know. What I know is it takes me back to my old school days when Kolkata was known as Calcutta to the anglophile. During our lunch break in school, we used to climb over each other’s heads just to get our share of Aloo Kabli from the bloke who used to be stationed just outside the perimeter of the school premises. Had he opened a fancy restaurant selling Aloo Kabli only and given it a fancy name like pomme de terre a la Calcutta, he would have been a millionaire by now. Thinly sliced triangles of boiled potatoes were tossed with chopped onions, chopped green chillies, chopped cucumber, mustard oil, cumin powder, some unearthly blend of spices, boiled black chickpeas, fresh tamarind juice, a few slivers of fresh coconut and salt and served in thonga (top-open packets made out of newspaper).
Sadly, after leaving Kolkata, I have never found such mouthwatering Aloo Kabli anywhere in India. In fact, I haven’t found Aloo Kabli at all. I keep preparing my own version occasionally though to keep my family happy and satisfied.
Aloo Jeera– This is my all-time favourite. Boiled potatoes tossed in butter with a tempering of earthy aromatic cumin seeds and fragrant asafoetida finished with chopped coriander leaves………. Pure heavenly bliss. The combination of cumin and asafoetida compliments the buttery potatoes perfectly.
My take– I often drizzle it with a few drops of mustard oil to give that extra kick.
Masala Dosa– Although purists may sneer, Masala Dosa remains one of the most popular snack items not only in India but also has found its niche as convenience food in the international food scene. And I am no exception. The crispy crepe goes exceptionally well with the curry leaves flavoured mushy potatoes.
My take– Try making a grilled sandwich with the masala. You will be surprised that a vegetable sandwich could be so delicious. The flavour of the bread and the contrasting textures work wonders.
Mashed Potato– The possibilities with mashed potatoes are seemingly endless. I have not yet come across a single individual who rejects mashed potatoes. You can alter its texture and flavour by “n” number of ingredients- cream, cheese, butter, shallots, mint, tarragon, chervil, parsley, bacon bits, sesame seeds, cumin or whatever your wild imaginations may permit.
My take– Specifically for the non-Bongs- try this amazing “Aloo Seddho”, the way the Bongs eat. Heat a few teaspoons of mustard oil to smoking point and throw in some whole red chillies, fry quickly for 5-10 seconds and pour the chillies along with the oil on the mashed potatoes. Season with salt and mix well. This gives a beautiful earthy smokiness to the potatoes and the bite of fiery chillies. You can also add mashed boiled eggs (whites and yolks together) and/or sliced onions to give it a little more flavour and zing. This can be an excellent filling for wraps and sandwiches or simply have it with steamed rice. If you want more mashed potatoes, here is one of our family recipes.
Aloo Tikki– Aloo Tikki (spiced and stuffed robust dumplings of boiled and mashed potatoes shallow-fried on a griddle) is one of the most delectable street foods of North India. Be it, Delhi, Chandigarh, Amritsar or Jaipur, the ubiquitous aloo tikkis are unmissable. The very sight of these being fried on a griddle is a visual delight that secretes my salivary glands. The spicy and piping hot tikkis, drizzled with tamarind chutney and mint chutney will surely warm your cockles in the cold wintry evenings of North India.
My take– Instead of the tamarind and mint chutneys, serve the tikkis with Ghugni. Ghugni is a bright yellow thick curry made with white pea lentils. Smash the freshly fried tikkis lightly with the back of a spoon and top it with piping hot Ghugni, sprinkle some chopped coriander leaves and have it. Trust me, you will never go wrong.
Rajasthani Dum Aloo– Almost every state in India has its own version of Dum Aloo- Kashmiri, Lucknowi, Banarasi, Punjabi, Bengali. I have had the good fortune of tasting most of them. But the one that surpasses all is undoubtedly that from the badlands of Rajasthan. Although I am a great fan of Lucknowi culinary tradition, I am unable to give much credit to Lucknow for vegetarian dishes. Rajasthani Dum Aloo takes the cake by miles.
If you are on a tour of Western Rajasthan, never miss their Dum Aloo. I tasted an out-of-the-world version at an authentic Rajasthani restaurant in Bikaner. In the deserts of Rajasthan, Dum Aloo is made with copious quantities of ghee and cashew and aromatic spices. The oily richness is toned down by adding curd while finishing. Rajasthani Dum Aloo is best accompanied with Bajra Roti (pearl millet flatbread) smeared with ghee.
My recipe of Rajasthani Dum Aloo
- Baby potatoes- 500 g
- Ghee- 100 ml
- Asafoetida- 1/8Tsp
- Bay leaves- 3 nos.
- Cumin seeds- 1 and 1/2 Tsp
- Ginger- 2-inch piece (grated)
- Red chilli powder- 1 Tsp
- Cumin powder- 1 Tsp
- Coriander powder- 2 Tsp
- Fennel powder- 1 Tsp
- Cashew nut paste- 70 g
- Water- as required
- Beaten curd- 1/2 cup
- Garam masala powder- 1 and 1/2 Tsp
- Salt- to taste
- Wash and parboil the baby potatoes in salted water with skin on. Let them cool and peel the skin.
- Heat ghee to medium-hot and fry the parboiled potatoes to light golden colour. Remove with a perforated ladle and keep ready.
- In the same oil add asafoetida, cumin seeds, and bay leaves and fry for a few seconds on low-medium heat till it is aromatic.
- Add grated, ginger, red chilli powder, cumin powder, coriander powder and fennel powder and fry the masala for two to three minutes. Splash frequently with water to prevent the masala from burning.
- Add cashew nut paste and cook for a few minutes till oil separates.
- Now pour in the fried parboiled potatoes and mix well with the masala and cook for three minutes.
- Add water just to cover the potatoes. Cover and cook till the potatoes are fully cooked and tender.
- Reduce the liquid if required. The gravy should be of thick consistency.
- Reduce heat and add beaten curd and blend well.
- Add salt and adjust seasoning.
- Remove from heat, add garam masala and mix well.
- Serve hot with Bajra Roti or chapati or any other Indian flatbread smeared with ghee.
Potatoes are a lean food by themselves. It’s the fat in which they are cooked that makes you fat. Forget what the doctors or the nutritionists say. They are always hunting for something, imagined mostly, to make your life miserable. You could survive on boiled potatoes and a glass of milk for an entire year without any real health issues. The nutrients in potatoes are right under their jackets and if you peel those off before cooking them, you lose all the amazing minerals, fibre, Vitamin C and Vitamin B6. So, try cooking potatoes with their jackets whenever possible.
Show respect and hold potatoes in high esteem as life without the ubiquitous potato is a life not worth living.