The veggie with mass a-peel: Swetha Sivakumar on the potato

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When potatoes first arrived in Europe in the 16th century, aboard Spanish trading ships, they were not well-received.

What would chaat be without potato? Unthinkable, and rather pointless. (Adobe Stock) PREMIUM
What would chaat be without potato? Unthinkable, and rather pointless. (Adobe Stock)

This vegetable from South America was unfamiliar to most of the rest of the world. Some Europeans believed it might cause disease; because the tubers were so unsightly, they resembled “a leper’s gnarled hands”, as chroniclers of the time recorded.

Ireland, however, embraced the starchy tuber. Farmers in that country were happy to find a crop that grew so prodigiously in soil that could grow little else. Before the potato, the Irish had struggled to grow wheat and cereals for nutrition. Now, paired with the milk that was widely available, potatoes offered a balanced diet at a fraction of the effort and expense.

The potato wasn’t just a hardier crop, it was also so much easier to harvest and cook. It needed no threshing, milling, kneading or baking; one could just throw it in a pot and wait for it to reach buttery consistency.

Potatoes became so pivotal that they shaped Ireland’s population growth. With the rich new harvests, farmers could afford to feed large families. The country’s population, as a result, shot up from 3 million to 8 million between 1700 and 1840.

The risk with monoculture, of course, is that anything that threatens one field, threatens them all. In 1845, a fungus called Phytophthora infestans caused the famous potato blight. Its spores floated from acre to acre, infecting everything they settled on. Fields of potatoes went black within days.

The infestation struck three times in as many years. By 1848, a terrible famine had set in. All the gains that the potato had fostered dwindled. A weakened population became sick, with typhus and cholera becoming rampant. By 1858, a million people had died. Thousands fled the blighted land, many migrating in distress to America. Ireland’s population dropped to under 5 million by 1891 and to 4 million by 1931.

While generations flourished on the tuber, a perfect storm had been brewing. The type of potato most susceptible to Phytophthora infestans is the lumper. It was also the variety most widely grown in Ireland, because it out-yielded other varieties by 30%.

The thing about the lumper is that it grows from cuttings, not seeds. This meant that most of Irelands potato plants were essentially botanical clones. A blight that could slay one, then, would slay without exception any that it reached.

Today, hundreds of potato varieties are grown around the world, with concerted efforts made to keep each country’s crops diverse. In 1949, for instance, the government of a newly independent India set up the Central Potato Research Institute in Shimla. One of its key goals has been to keep the crop disease-free, and it has released over 50 new varieties so far, to ensure diversity in crops across India.

When it comes to texture and mouthfeel, though, there is not much variety among potatoes. By and large, they fall into one of two categories: starchy or mealy.

Mealy potatoes contain more starch (about 22%) than waxy ones (about 16%). That extra 6% makes a difference, because it changes how the water in the tuber interacts with the raw starch when heated.

Put a high-starch mealy potato in boiling water, for instance, and its cells become engorged with gelatinised starch and fall apart easily, also absorbing any flavours they come in contact with (butter, gravy, salt, masala). This makes mealy potatoes perfect for paratha stuffing, mash, chips and fries. The kufri chipsona and kufri kundan (both bred by the Indian institute, and named for a region in Himachal Pradesh), and the santana and russet are examples of mealy potatoes.

Waxy potatoes, when cooked, become moist and smooth, with a creamy mouthfeel, but retain their shape. They are ideal for wedges, chaat, sabzi. Popular examples of waxy potatoes include the kufri badshah, kufri jyoti and kufri pukhraj.

Indians have long since overcome their resistance to this vegetable, which first arrived here in the early 17th century. By the mid-1900s, most Indian cuisines had folded it into their ancient recipes in ways that left no trace of its foreign roots.

We don’t even bother with mealy or waxy, for the most part. In a pinch, really, any kind will do. Fry, bake, boil, mash, pan-roast or stew, the humble potato is the one vegetable that it is hard to go wrong with.

(To reach Swetha Sivakumar with questions or feedback, email upgrademyfood@gmail.com)

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