The travelling tuber

The travelling tuber
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First Published: Sat, May 31 2008. 12 11 AM IST

Updated: Sat, May 31 2008. 12 11 AM IST
Through the narrow front door of this little three-floor factory you can see the abandoned remains of a vaguely neo-classical building: the old Bombay Talkies. In fact, nothing remains of the building except the roofless façade. But even that façade is ruined by rusting name boards for shops selling screws, iron rebar and other such tools of hard, gritty labour.
Inside the Jumboking vadapav factory, though, everything is clean, shiny and efficient. This little plant, deep inside the sprawling Bombay Talkies industrial compound in Malad, a suburb of Mumbai, processes more than 2 tonnes of potato every weekday. Each morning, sacks of potatoes are unloaded, de-sacked, sorted and cleaned before being tipped into two large steaming vats.
Six hours later the potatoes magically transform into 50,000-plus potato patties. Ashish Mirani, who manages the kitchen on behalf of Jumboking, beams as he tells us how the patties will now be shipped out in Jumboking trucks to dozens of company outlets all across Maharashtra and Gujarat.
The journey for these patties has just begun, but for the humble potato, romantically speaking, it is but the last few legs in an epic journey of thousands of miles and four centuries.
In 2006, the world produced more than 315 million tonnes of potato. Which places it in fourth place, after rice, wheat and corn, in the list of most widely grown food crops. The potato thrives, as the UN says in its snappy little International Year of the Potato 2008 brochure: “…on Peru’s mountains, the plains of Northern Europe, China’s Yunnan plateau, Rwanda’s equatorial highlands and subtropical lowlands in India.” Everywhere on the planet except the frozen poles.
And, as ably witnessed by Jumboking vadapavs, India is no stranger to the potato. We cultivate more than 25 million tonnes of the tuber—much of it in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. And, from piping hot aloo tikkis by the streets of Delhi to crisp masala dosas pregnant with potato filling at Saravana Bhavan in Chennai, the potato is an ubiquitous part of the Indian diet.
Not bad statistics at all for a vegetable that was literally unheard of in most parts of the world till 400 years ago. In fact, the only people who knew of the vegetable till sometime early in the 17th century belonged to the native South American civilizations—the Mayans, Incas and so on. The world, including India, lived blissfully unaware of this most versatile of vegetables.
This means that a whole host of luminaries in human history went by without ever enjoying the satisfying experience of a bowl of hearty mashed potatoes or plate of crisp, deep-fried potato chips. Jesus Christ was one. Closer home, emperor Ashok, the men who carved the caves at Ajanta and Ellora, and several Mughal emperors missed out on tasty tubers and concoctions thereof. Not to mention entire civilizations—Roman, Greek, Persian, et al.
In fact, Ashutosh Gowariker may want to rethink that scene in his movie Jodhaa Akbar where Aishwarya Rai feeds her husband a sumptuous meal of assorted delicacies, including what looks remarkably like a shiny bowl of aloo methi. There is little chance that the potato was anything more than a novelty vegetable during that period in Indian history.
So, how did this vegetable go from being a South American delicacy to global staple and now focus of attention from no less than the United Nations (UN)?
It’s a fascinating story, and no one is better equipped to tell it than David Spooner, potato expert extraordinaire, of the Agricultural Research Services, US department of agriculture, and researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Spooner has spent the past 22 years studying the potato in general and its taxonomy in particular. Each year, Spooner travels around the world picking up potato samples and soldiering away at some potato conundrum or the other (his latest research paper is titled: Allopolyploid speciation of the tetraploid Mexican potato species S. stoloniferum and S. hjertingii revealed by genomic in situ hybridization).
“There is no question about it. The potato was unique to South America before being carried out into the rest of the world by Spanish conquistadors,” explained Spooner one morning on the phone from his office at the university. “The potato was then carried to the colonies, including India, where it became popular over a very short period of time. Every potato you see in the world today came from South America.”
No one knows exactly who first carried the plant on a ship bound for Europe from South America. Some say Sir Walter Raleigh, Englishman of words and travels, was the first person to plant the potato on European soil. But, an even more captivating story is that of wretched Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada.
In 1568, Senór Quesada was ordered to conquer the Los Llanos area of modern Columbia. Quesada immediately embarked on an expedition with 2,000 men and the glint of gold in his eyes. He returned four years later, empty-handed, and with a ragged crew of 60 survivors. His masters were less than pleased with his abject failure and he was asked, soon enough, to return to Spain, where he would cause less damage.
Quesada’s reputation had taken such a beating that some believe he was the inspiration for Miguel Cervantes’ seminal novel Don Quixote (not a legacy to be proud of. While Cervantes’ novel is a classic, his protagonist is a highly irrational, idealistic old man prone to hallucinations).
Quesada’s other legacy was much more pleasing: The story goes that in place of the missing gold, he returned with several samples of the popular local plant called “papa” or potato. As food historians like to say endlessly, Quesada probably brought home a treasure much more valuable than gold.
While there is much uncertainty, legend and myth about when the potato reached Europe, we know with some certainty when it graced Indian shores. This is thanks to the literary ambitions of a priest called Edward Terry.
Mash and dash: Jumboking ships out more than 50,000 vadapav patties each day to stores in Gujarat and Maharashtra. (Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint)
When Sir Thomas Roe arrived as ambassador to the court of emperor Jehangir in 1615, Terry accompanied him as his chaplain. The priest then proceeded to write a book called Voyage to East India, in which he made delightful observations of, among other things, the local fruits and vegetables.
His description of the pineapple, or annanas, is vivid: “a most pleasing compound made of strawberries, claret-wine, rose-water and sugar well tempered together”.
And in the next paragraph, Terry dryly notes that the northern parts of the Mughal empire have “every where good roots, as carrots, potatoes, and others like them”.
“Terry’s book is the first recorded mention of the potato in Indian history,” Spooner confirms. Of course, at the time it was merely a garden vegetable and not a crop of any scale. It would take another two centuries before the potato really began to see culinary traction.
“Scientific cultivation of potatoes in India began in 1822, when a certain Mr Sullivan started a potato farm in Chennai,” says N.K. Pandey, principal scientist at the Central Potato Research Institute (CPRI) in Shimla. CPRI is India’s foremost body for innovation and investigation in tuber science. Since 1949, Pandey told us, the CPRI has developed more than 43 potato varieties that can grow in every “agro-climatic zone” in the country. “This has helped transform a garden vegetable like the potato into an important food crop in India,” Pandey says.
Nowadays the potato thrives in India, especially in UP, West Bengal, Punjab and Bihar.
Manish Miranda, general manager, supply chain, at Jumboking, sources all his potatoes from UP. “The important criterion for us when choosing tubers is the moisture content. Too much moisture and the patties spoil too soon.” The Jumboking patties are designed for a shelf life of seven days and are made from a variety of tuber called “grade 2”. Orders are placed with their broker at the APMC market in Vashi, Navi Mumbai, who then relays orders to cold storages in UP that carry stock all year round.
This cold storage is essential for the tuber in India since it grows mainly as a rabi (winter) crop between the months of October and March. According to a 2007 report by the Multi-Commodities Exchange, almost 80% of the crop is produced within this period and cold chain facilities ensure year-round availability and control price fluctuations.
Sreekumar Raghavan, managing editor of CommodityOnline, an online provider of commodity-related news and reports, explains what some of the challenges facing potato farmers in India today are: “The potato is one of the few food crops which will see a drop in prices in the coming months. This year, there has been a bumper crop in Bengal, UP and Bihar and not enough storage facilities to accommodate it. So, farmers will sell whatever they can at whatever price before the crop perishes. But, with more infrastructure and more processing plants by private players, farmers should be able to make more money soon.”
Despite these concerns of supply and storage, and its rather recent addition to native diets, the potato has rapidly secured a central position on our dining tables and in our tiffin boxes. One reason is that the tuber is a very hardy grower. It is also an extremely nutritious and versatile one. CPRI’s Pandey elaborates: “Few food crops have the ability to be cooked in so many different ways to cater to so many different age groups.”
You can fry it, boil it, steam it, chip it, mash it, grate it and even just pop it into a microwave and irradiate for a few moments for a filling meal. The potato can also be processed into a number of foods that can be packaged with long shelf lives, such as chips, snacks and other products.
No wonder some countries consume mind-boggling quantities of it. In Belarus, for instance, the average person consumes more than 300kg of it each year. India, surprisingly, consumes just 16kg per capita per year. “We consume less than Europeans because of a lack of food diversification. Indians continue to consume it as a fresh vegetable. But with rising incomes, we should see growing consumptions of processed potato products as well,” Pandey explains. “It is a wonderful source of nutrition, especially when you have a large malnourished population.”
The potato’s new-found celebrity status, thanks to the UN, should please all spud enthusiasts. But the International Year of the Potato is much more than just a reason to eat more tuber and organize academic seminars.
Spooner, who was closely involved with the declaration, believes that the potato holds the potential to solve the looming global food crisis. “With prices of staples like rice, wheat and corn rising, the potato could be a great cheap substitute to feed the poor,” the researcher says with some passion. “And, you can make it work anywhere in the world. You can make noodles, pasta, flour, bread and almost any other product you can think of. And, it is also remarkably nutritious—a complete food.”
An April 2008 World Bank policy paper (Rising Food Prices: Policy options and World Bank Response) made the ominous prediction that food prices may be expected to rise relentlessly for the next two years and we are likely to see high prices sustain up to 2015. “In this scenario, countries, especially the poorer ones, need to look at increasing potato production to tide over.” Spooner says.
One of the first countries to rise to the cause has been Peru, an original cultivator of the potato centuries ago. The country has taken to the celebrations with great ardour and hopes to use the tuber to bring down its annual $800 million (around Rs3,000 crore) wheat import bill.
Calling the tuber a “Hidden Treasure”, the UN hopes more countries will follow Peru’s lead and promote potato consumption. Bangladesh held a three-day potato fair earlier this month and India will host the “Global Potato Conference 2008” in New Delhi in December.
So, the next time you bite into a piping hot vadapav or dig into a masala dosa, spare a thought for the intrepid tuber in your dish. Not only are you digging into a piece of world history, but also a cheap bet for its future (and, no more talk of local food pride please! The vadapav, Mumbai’s pride, is a concoction of almost entirely foreign ingredients—potatoes, tomatoes, chilli and fermented bread are all colonial imports).
As for the potato, the conquest of the whole world may be complete, but yet another journey, an even longer one, beckons. In October 1995, the potato became the first vegetable to be successfully grown in space (incidentally, the tubers were grown on-board the subsequently ill-fated space shuttle Columbia). Sometime in the future, when mankind finally colonizes another planet and they sit down, in their shiny overalls, for an austere celebratory dinner, the odds are that they’ll probably be tucking into a big bowl of steaming mashed space potatoes.
Back on earth, Spooner, potato buff par excellence, likes his spud simple and hearty. He laughs when asked to pick out his favourite potato dish. After a brief silence, he replies: “A nice, big baked potato with butter. Preferably by the side of a big juicy steak.”
Spoken like an expert indeed.
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First Published: Sat, May 31 2008. 12 11 AM IST
More Topics: Jumboking | Vadapav | Gastronomy | Potato | Culture |