In Praise of Potatoes
Arguably the best pav bhaji in the world is available at Sardar Pav Bhaji in Tardeo, Mumbai. They add an approximately equal amount of butter to the mashed potatoes.
I came to Mumbai for my first job in 1983. My fellow trainee of the same name – Sandeep Berry, now a senior lawyer in Delhi – and I stayed in a hotel room. Sandep is interested in hearing the qualified Cook Mahashtrian to get potatoes like Patata. We both thought that she gave bad potatoes until we discovered (Patata) Fada Paf. But it took me many more years to realize that just as ‘bao’ means bread, ‘patata’ is the Portuguese word for potato which the people of the west coast of India have happily appropriated. Like many other vegetables, potatoes were not imported into India by the British but by the Portuguese via Goa.
Potatoes are also not popular in the UK. It was imported by the Spanish from its native Peru and remained an exotic vegetable for a long time. So much so that KC Achaya wrote in The Historical Dictionary of Indian Food that when Warren Hastings received a “basket of potatoes” around 1780, he “invited his council to dine with him and share the dish.” Such an extraordinary gift. However, it is certainly the mashed potato, which was later adopted by the people of the then Bengal Presidency in many forms – be it aloo bhat in West Bengal, aloo chokha in Bihar, or aloo bharta in Bangladesh. Aloo in Kolkata Phuchka (actually a Bihari invention) is a really cold chukka with tamarind powder, green chillies, kabuli chana, red chillies and jeera powder mixed without onion or garlic.
Everyone has their favorite Aloo product. I generally like to classify aloo dishes into three categories: mash, bhaji and curry. ‘Aloo bhaja’ or potato chips in various shapes – whether julienned, sliced or roughly chopped like potato chips (jhori aloo bhaja) are largely East Indian specialties and can only be enjoyed fried in mustard oil. as they are called now) are not Indian recipes and are therefore beyond the scope of this article. However, the art of making French fries is fast disappearing with the onslaught of pre-packaged, extruded, frozen and pre-fried variations that every club and restaurant loves. This is partly because people do not have the time and patience to cut, clean, starch, boil and fry potato chips, and also because it is not easy to get good quality dirty potato chips (soy sauce equivalent of large russet potatoes).
As for the Bhajis, I think it lies mainly south of the Vindhyas. In terms of characteristics, the potato mixture inside the vada pav and the masala dosa masala fall pretty much in the same category as the Maharashtrian pattyachi bhaji. Kerala roast potatoes are a Malayali roasted aloo jeera potato, but I like the chopped potatoes lightly fried with amchur, toasted jeera, red chili powder and a little turmeric (onion, ginger and garlic if you like). . But it’s not a baked potato. The closest thing to this – which we can get is Bharela Aloo (not cooked in gravy but dry) with a little jeera and other spices on top. Aloo chaat or its Kolkata equivalent, aloo kabuli (because it contains kabuli chana and mixed with turmeric chutney) is the perfect choice to serve with drinks.
“Jab tak samosa mein rahega aloo, tab tak Bihar mein rahega Lalu,” said the one and only Lalu Prasad Yadav. Wajid Ali Shah has long died and perhaps no longer has the illusion of immortality that he once had. However, Aloo in Kolkata Biryani still exists. The moral of the story is that colonial masters, emperors and politicians may come and go, but aloo (potato) will remain forever after entering our lives.
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