Usually shunted into supporting roles, the humble tuber packs a mighty punch on its own
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My grandmother had one central tenet of cooking that, with her characteristic love of economy, she also recycled as life advice to all and sundry. She used potatoes very sparingly, reserving them to cook only on their own—either as light fragrant rassa wala alu or as moreish sookhe aloo coated with crunchy piquant spices. She loved potatoes, but believed they were prone to extreme laziness (yes, my grandmother had a view on the work ethic of everyone and everything, including the humble potato) and really came into their own only on their own. Her view was that when mixed with other vegetables, they didn’t extend themselves at all and were happy to play just a supporting role.
Whenever she caught sight of us lolling about, she would aim a sharp swift smack at our posteriors, with urgent warnings that laziness such as ours would ensure we would only be good enough to become aloos in other people’s sabzis (oh hideous fate!) and never achieve true glory by becoming solo artist aloo ki sabzis ourselves.
While I don’t think the Nobel Prize Committee is racing to acknowledge my nani’s stellar work in coming up with a unified theory of everything—laziness, potatoes and the virtues of going it alone included—heeding her advice can pay rich gustatory dividends. Because no matter who you are and what part of the country you or your grandmother come from, or, in fact, what your views on potatoes cooked with other vegetables is, there is no doubt that eating aloo bhaji–potatoes cooked gloriously on their own–is one of life’s finest pleasures.
There’s something about eating even the simplest version of pre-boiled potatoes tossed in a few basic spices that invariably engenders a warm glow of contentment. Think a humble jeera aloo or a potato pepper fry or the potato filling for dosas cooked with curry patta and tiny shallots—any particular version that floats your boat. The delicious soul-satisfying pleasure in demolishing it might be in small part attributable to the glucose boost that simple carbohydrates give you, but it’s much bigger than that.
The truth is that an aloo bhaji manages to tap into what the collective human palate instinctively recognizes as blindingly brilliant: a combination of potatoes and fat. In every culture across the world since the potato migrated from Peru all those centuries back, this combination of taste and texture is hardwired into our genetic memory. Throw in the flavour that a few simple spices can add, and it’s no wonder that there isn’t a child or adult who can’t scarf down their own body weight in aloo.
A crowd favourite is often the rassa aloo cooked and served with puris, the ‘nubbly-ness’ of the lightly smashed potatoes a wonderful contrast to the tartness in the gravy imparted by the tomatoes and the textural crunch of dhania patta. Scooped up and eaten with puris, it’s the taste of childhood and family. Every home has its own version of exactly how the perfect puri wala aloos are made: with or without onions, tamarind to accentuate the tartness or just tomatoes, and the exact amount of water to add to achieve the perfect consistency. And while it’s impossible to make these aloos taste bad, cooked just right, that’s as close to happiness as its possible to get in this lifetime.
Close in form, though quite distinct in taste, the Bengalis have a wonderful aloor dum: Baby potatoes parboiled and then simmered in a slightly sweet gravy of onions, tomatoes and aromatics such as heeng and bay leaves. Eaten with koraishutir kachori (kachoris stuffed with green peas), every mouthful is divine. The Kashmiri dum aloo is a much grander affair, equally yummy but much richer: the potatoes are fried (not parboiled) and then simmered in a gravy that balances the creaminess of cashew nuts, the delicacy of fennel seeds and ginger, the fieriness of red chilli paste and the tartness of yoghurt.
Even the Parsis, usually reluctant to eat anything that wasn’t at one point a sentient being, are happy to make an exception for potatoes. The papeta par eeda (potatoes with eggs) is a masterful mix of sliced potatoes cooked over a light onion tomato mixture over which some eggs are cracked and fried. The yolk forms a rich savoury sauce for the potatoes that you mop up with pao.
The Sindhis have their own masterpiece to offer. Aloo tuk is roundels of potatoes, thick sliced and twice fried after being lightly smashed. Eaten with just a sprinkling of salt, amchur and red chilli powder, it is what you crave when you’ve had a hard day or when you need a little carb pick-me-up at the dinner table.
Even the humblest versions of the potato can be addictive. Mashed potatoes the Indian way—variously known as aloo bhate, aloo ka bharta or aloo chokha—are simplicity and yumminess itself. Potatoes are boiled, mashed and then their earthy goodness is highlighted with the addition of finely chopped onions and green chillies and lifted gloriously with the piquant tang of mustard oil. The perfect foil to grander tastes, an aloo bhate plays a fabulous cameo at any table.
Having been exhorted to be an aloo sabzi myself my whole childhood (which is not something many people can say truthfully), I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about which exact one I would be. And while I think there would be absolutely no shame in my being any of the ones I have talked about, the ones that I would really aspire to be...? Here in no particular order is that shortlist.
1. The jakhiya aloo that my own grandmother used to make to perfection—and which I throw together ever so often in my own kitchen: parboiled potatoes sautéed in heeng and lots and lots of the pahari spice jakhiya (which is like very microscopic rye seeds) to add a textural crunch.
2. Gorkhali aloo, which my mum learnt to make from our Nepali help: Potatoes tossed in julienned ginger and green chillies, sprinkled over with a generous amount of roasted ground sesame and a twist of lemon juice.
3. Aloo ka thench, which all paharis love: smashed potatoes cooked in buttermilk and thickened slightly with rice flour.
All of these do the hardworking aloo full justice—its earthy goodness, its comforting bulk, its wholesome yumminess, and they are the taste of my childhood, of happiness and contentment.
I dont know whether my work ethic would pass muster with my eagle-eyed long dead nani, but my aloo aspiration list?—that she would endorse happily.