Potatoes journey from the embrace of edible clay to wheat flour.
Updated: Jul 22, 2021
"How did the potato go inside the Paratha?" asked my 5-year old niece Anu, when I first introduced Aloo Paratha to her on a fine evening during our evening outings. This activated my curiosity and got me thinking as to how Paratha-an Indian dish encompassed Potato- a vegetable of South American origin as its own.
This article unravels the journey of Potato through centuries across the countries till setting its roots in India, traveling across the countries to traverse and assimilate in the Indian cuisine. About 7000-9000 years ago, Potato used to grow as a wild plant in the Andes mountains, the longest mountain range on earth and domesticated by the Inca Indians.
Clay Duncan Potatoes:
The wild potatoes are covered with toxic compounds solanine and tomatine innately averting bacteria, fungi, and animals. Both these toxic compounds are unaffected by cooking, leading the Inca Indians to find a way to break these chemical defenses. They observed few mountain animals licking clay before consuming poisonous plants, where clay adsorbs the toxins without affecting their digestive system. Inca Indians applied the same principles and started dunking the potatoes in the edible clay gravy, eventually producing less-toxic potatoes. Even today Andean villagers celebrate the potato harvest by baking potatoes and consume by dipping in coarse salt and edible clay.
Potato being the primary food component, Andean Indians explored varied culinary interests creatively. They consumed Potato by boiling, baking, and mashing similar to how Europeans do now.
They made extensive dishes with potatoes like papas secas by boiling, peeling, chopping, and drying; fermenting potatoes in stagnant water to make toqosh; grounding its pulp after soaking in the jug, and filtering to produce potato starch referred to as almidón de papa.
The ubiquitous Chuño :
Among them, chuño is most ubiquitous, which is made by repeated freeze-thaw cycles followed by trampling by men and the liquid squeezing by women and finally sun-dried for dehydration. chuño is used to cook spicy Andean stew, which resembles Gnocchi, the potato-flour dumplings in central Italy. As evident from a documented statement “Stew without chuño is like life without love”, the Incas had a strong preference for these dehydrated potatoes as they can be stored for years without refrigeration as insurance against bad harvests. chuño was the food that sustained the mighty Inca armies.
Journey across the world begins:
The existence of Potatoes remained a secret until Spanish conquistadors set foot in Peru in 1532, in search of Gold and noticed Inca miners eating chuño. Back then Spaniards failed to understand the importance of Potato which is way more precious than gold and silver. Later they gradually started to use potatoes as basic rations on their ships. Potatoes entered Europe first to Spain in 1570 and second through the British Isles between 1588 and 1593. Upon arrival in Spain, few Spanish farmers cultivated them as food for livestock. In 1589, Sir Walter Raleigh introduced potatoes to Ireland on the 40,000 acres of land near Cork. By 1600, potatoes had arrived in Spain, Italy, Austria, Belgium, Holland, France, Switzerland, England, Germany, Portugal, and Ireland.
Bitter acceptance across Europe:
Throughout Europe, Potato is met with great suspicion for being an alien food, distasteful as believed to be an aphrodisiac, and feared to be a cause of fever or leprosy. Thereby, it is used as animal fodder or for providing sustenance for the starving. Owing to the resemblance of the Potato plant to that of nightshade family plants, some had disbelief of Potato being a creation of witches or devils.
Spanish conquerors considered it as food for natives so they recommend it especially for the natives who were doing the heaviest jobs. A similar notion applied in England, where potatoes became the food of the working class. Even peasants abstained from consuming ugly, misshapen tubers and that originated from a heathen civilization.
Saviour during wars and famines:
In 1744, when Prussia was hit with famine King Frederick the Great, a potato enthusiast, sought the help of Potatoes to protect his people from famine and asked peasantry to grow Potatoes. But before he fought the famine, fighting his people's prejudice against Potato seemed difficult. He applied a reverse psychology
principle to encourage his people to grow Potatoes by planting a royal garden full of Potatoes protected heavily by the royal guards. Naturally, peasants assumed that anything guarded is worth stealing, so they snuck in and plucked the plants to grow in their home gardens.
France was comparatively slow while adopting the Spud, not until Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, the potato’s Johnny Appleseed for France stepped in. Parmentier realized the nutritional power of Potato when he survived with good health with a little potato diet during his multiple prison stints in the Prussian wartime. When the war ended in 1763, Parmentier devoted the rest of his life to promulgating Potato. In 1775 after Louis XVI was crowned, there was an upheaval when he lifted the price control on grain sparking the Flour War. It is the timely intervention of Parmentier who tirelessly promoted the consumption of Potatoes by the French to cease the Flour war.
Parmentier's passion for Potatoes can be understood, when he set up multiple publicity stunts ranging from persuading the king and queen to wear potato blossoms to presenting an all-potato dinner for the high-society guests ( It is this dinner that inspired Thomas Jefferson, one of the guests, to introduce French fries to America).
Instead of using seeds, when farmers planted pieces of the tuber it resulted in clones and when Parmentier was unknowingly promoted massive scale plantation of the clones it led to true monoculture.
According to the historian, Fernand Braudel between 1500 and 1800 France had hundreds of local famines and 40 nationwide famines, and between 1523 and 1623 England had 17 national and regional famines. The European continent failed to reliably feed itself.
The entry of Potato turned the tables yielding more food per acre than wheat acting as greater insurance against crop failure. The French diet got insinuated with Potato in the form of soups, boiled potatoes, and Pommes-Frites. The sudden rise in Potato cultivation not only guarded France and its allies during the famines but also during the Napoleonic wars. By the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, Potato had doubled the food supply, making the routine famines disappear in countries it is present and become the staple food for most Europeans.
In 1970, the Belgian historian Christian Vandenbroeke concluded that "For the first time in the history of western Europe, a definitive solution had been found to the food problem," with Potato.
The Irish Famine
Ireland stands as the most dramatic example of the potato's potential to alter population patterns. Between 1780 and 1840 the Irish population doubled to 8 million without any significant changes in industry or reforms in agriculture, solely due to extensive cultivation of Potato. The high-yielding Potato, sparked the lives of the poorest Irish farmers leading to healthy lives without any investment or hard labor, decreased infant mortality, and encouraged early marriage. The Irish relished Potato without any sophistication at the dinner table, where it is the appetizer, dinner, and dessert.
Across Europe, the potato was important food whereas in Ireland it is mostly the only food. Most of the Irish were consuming only milk and potatoes alone and by the early 1840s, one-half of them became entirely dependent specifically on just one or two high-yielding varieties of potato.
Then comes the twist in the story with the entry of Phytophthora infestans (P. infestans), “vexing plant destroyer" which preys on the plants of the nightshade family like Potatoes and tomatoes. In the early summer of 1845, P. infestans first broke out in West Flanders town, which is six miles from the French border. In the next few months, it rapidly destroyed potatoes in the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and England. On September 13, 1845, it was first reported in Ireland. Precisely at the time, Irish farmers planted about 2.1 million acres of potatoes that year and in two months the blight wiped out three-quarters of a million acres. The blight lasted for seven years and did not wind down till 1852. By then more than a million Irish people died leading to one of the deadliest famines in history. Within a decade two more million people fled from Ireland and by the late 1960s, leaving Ireland with half the population of what it had been in 1840. Even today, this stands as a cautionary tale for heavy dependence on a single food.
Setting its roots in India:
The Columbian Exchange brought Potato to Europe and colonialism brought it to India.
The Potato was first mentioned in Indian history in Edward Terry's voyage account of the banquet at Ajmer given by Asaph Khan to Sir Thomas Roe, the British ambassador in 1675.
Fryer's travel record (1672-81) described the gardens of Surat and in Karnataka in 1675 as containing, among other vegetables, brinjals, and potatoes.
In India, the potato was introduced in the early seventeenth century by the Portuguese who started its cultivation along the western coast, where it was called batata, and it didn't extend to the rest of the sub-continent. In the 18th century, the British East India Company set foot in India giving a new impetus to Potato. It is a part of the British “civilizing” mission to replace indigenous vegetables with a more superior variety of plants. During that time potato was a novelty even in England and therefore British Company agents wanted to continue the culinary explorations of this new vegetable far away from home, so they gave away plants to Indian farmers to grow at a pittance.
The Potato had its fair share of hurdles before it gained firm ground in India. Before independence, there were 38 European varieties of Potato under cultivation in India. Those exotic varieties are acclimatized to the long summer days of Europe and proved to be unsuitable for sub-tropical Indian conditions with shorter winter days. Initially, the hot summers and fast degeneration of seed stocks due to virus attacks were challenging for the storage of potatoes.
These turmoils stimulated the development of India's own research and development program to create varieties suitable to Indian conditions. As a result, Central Potato Research Institute (CPRI)CPRI was established in 1949 at Patna, as hills are ideal locations for producing and maintaining healthy seed and breeding improved hybrid varieties the headquarters was shifted to Shimla in 1956.
Until the "Seed Plot Technique” was perfected at the Central Potato Research Station, Jalandhar making quality seed production a reality in the North-Western plains under aphid free/low aphid conditions, the potato seed production was restricted to high hills. The seeds that resulted through the seed plot technique grown in plains were advantageous with 40% higher yields and were resistant to soil-borne and tuber-borne diseases and pests.
This led to the phenomenal growth of potatoes in India, which didn't account for 1% of the world's production in the 1940s to becoming the second-largest producer of Potatoes in the world by 2020.
Ubiquitous Aloo in Indian cuisine
We not only modified Potatoes to suit our Indian climatic conditions but also to suit our palette. There is a name for Potato across Indian languages and various dishes in each cuisine stretching across the length and breadth of the country.
Whether you have aloo paratha, tangy aloo puri, masala dosa with potato stuffing, or potato sandwich for breakfast, Potato is the prime ingredient.
Every cuisine in India has a special potato dish in it whether it is Bihari aloo chokha, Kashmiri dum aloo, Bengali aloo posto, spicy Kerala potato roast, or Maharashtrian batatyachi bhaji it signifies the ubiquitous presence of Potato in the Indian culinary lexicon.
All greatness lies in our Indian culture which accepts, adapts, and encompasses Potato- a foreign vegetable as its own, like how wheat flour embraces mashed potato in Aloo Paratha.