Potato Tales: All About Aloo

Bengali aloor dum. Image courtesy Whiskaffair

We Indians and aloo. The starchy potato or aloo is probably the most popular vegetable in India. There’s aloo in our samosa and aloo in our dosa, there’s aloo parantha and aloo bonda, there’s aloo tikki, aloo chat and what not. Especially in a bong household most veggies are paired with aloo – aloo kopir dalna, aloo pataler dalna, aloo peper dalna and the list goes on. There’s aloo in our mutton and fish curries too. Aloo or potato in these non-veg curries especially mutton adds a flavour that is much coveted.

Aloo doesn’t only lend support to other vegetables it stands on tall on its own as well. It’s probably the friendliest veggie that easily blends most veggies and yet has a character of its own. Aloo bhaja, aloo posto, aloor dum, aloo bhate (Bengali version on mashed potato) are a few popular Bong preparations. Not just in Bengal versatile aloo has popular culinary representations across India – Kashmiri dum aloo, Brijwasi aloo of Vrindavav, dahi aloo in UP and aloo chokha in Bihar are relished by people across India. Much to the surprise of Westerners’, we Indians have aloo with roti and chawal – carb with carb as they put.

In the West aloo or potato is often the substitute for our roti and chawal, served with roast chicken, baked fish and veggies etc. We also have popular potato snacks like potato chips, French fries and very classy potato in jacket. Potato is probably one vegetable that is popular across the world, across cultures. Weight watchers may raise their brows, but gol aloo or starchy potato is a nutritious vegetable rich in potassium, iron and vitamins.

The origin of potato

Potato or aloo is one vegetable that has travelled across the world. Potato was first found in Peru and extreme northwestern Bolivia sometime between 8000 and 5000 BC. The cultivation of potato is South America may go back 10,000 years, however the earliest archeologically verified potato tuber remains were found at the coastal site of Ancon, central Peru dating back to 2500 BC. Since then potato has travelled to many countries.

Potato first reached Europe sometime before the end of 16th century, first in Spain and then in British Isles. In France potato was introduced at the end of the 16th century. According to the 1785 edition of Bon Jardinier, “There is no vegetable about which so much has been written and so much enthusiasm has been shown … The poor should be quite content with this foodstuff.” Yes, potato was largely considered to be food for the poor then.

Throughout Europe, the most important new staple food of the 19th century potato had three major advantages over other foods: its lower rate of spoilage, its bulk (which easily satisfied hunger) and its cheapness. The crop slowly spread across Europe, becoming a major staple by mid-century, especially in Ireland.

Aloo comes to India

Potato started becoming a popular food in the East as well. Introduced in  China toward the end of the Ming dynasty, potato immediately became a delicacy of the imperial family. Sometime between 1735–96 the growing population of China led to potato cultivation across the country and it was acclimated to the natural conditions.

In India, author Edward Terry mentioned potato in his travel accounts of the banquet at Ajmer hosted by Asaph Khan for Sir Thomas Roe, the British Ambassador in 1675. The vegetables gardens of Surat and Karnataka mentions potatoes in Fyer’s travel record of 1675. The Portuguese introduced potatoes, which they called ‘Batata’, to India in the early seventeenth century when they cultivated it along the western coast, thus we have batata and famous batata vada in Maharashtra. British traders introduced potatoes to Bengal as a root crop, ‘Alu’, and alu became Bengal’s much loved aloo. By the end of the 18th century, it was cultivated across northern hill areas of India.

Aloo wins over India

Since then potato or gol mol aloo has won over Indian palates. Though aloo maybe round and some preparations like fries and chips fattening, the vegetable by itself in not fattening. Potato is an all-purpose, high fibre vegetable than can be quite nutritious if prepared in the right way!

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