Internationally, this misshapen tuber covered in mud and sold traditionally at greengrocers is no longer common or the poor man’s staple. The first variety of potato originated in South America—in what is now Colombia—and was brought to Europe by the Spanish, who thought they were a form of “truffle”. How they found their way to Britain and, in particular, Ireland—where they were relied upon as a basic staple—is somewhat of a mystery. The Irish then took them to the US, and they were found in India in the early 17th century, where they were popular because of the vegetarian population, but not elsewhere in Asia.
I feel the potato is so underrated. It has an amazing number of uses, from sabzis to baked butter-and-cream concoctions, fried, boiled and tossed in butter, roasted until they are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside (an art in itself to achieve) to the French fry or chips and mashed potatoes.
In India, unfortunately, we usually only ever see two varieties at the most, a big old grey-brown one and smaller newer ones with sand brown, flaky skins. Just for the record, waxy potatoes (the older ones here) are preferred for dishes such as a gratin because they do not crumble when boiled or baked. The British prefer “floury” potatoes (like our ones with flaky skins) which have a fluffy texture and are therefore better for chips and mash.
Spud-bashing: An underrated sport
Almost every country has its own version of a mashed potato but here is where the British, with their rather limited culinary cupboard, excel. When it comes to mash, most people worry so much about getting a smooth texture that they forget about the taste. I now peel and boil potatoes although it is healthier to boil potatoes with their skins. I do this because our potatoes leave a nasty, grey colour when boiled with their skins. This is fine if you are throwing them into a sabzi where they will be doused with spices and their colour masked by turmeric and chilli. A young chef I was working with taught me the trick of peeling and then boiling, which achieves a fluffier texture and lovely off-white colour. Always remember to boil potatoes in salted water. There is no point adding salt later. Your potato dish will taste bland with a salty aftertaste. You must remove them from the boiling water and mash with a masher at once. While mashing, you add cream and butter, about ¼ cup of each to, say, five potatoes. Once the texture is right, you can then add things such as chopped spring onions, whole grain mustard, a little garlic, cheese and even fried onions.
This recipe is one of my favourites because it is so easy and so devilishly good. It is inspired by a recipe I saw Nigella Lawson making on TV some time ago. As with real mash, you can add any of the above flavourings to this recipe.
Creamy Potato Slush
6 large potatoes
1 whole onion, peeled
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tbsp salt
4 tbsp butter
Peel the potatoes and cut them into slices (around ½ inch). Put them in a large saucepan with the milk, cream, onion, garlic and salt. Bring to a boil and simmer until almost tender, but not dissolving into mush.
Use some of the butter to grease a large roasting tin or glass dish. Remove the onion and pour the almost sludgy milk and potato mixture into the dish. Slightly mash with a potato masher. Dot with remaining butter and cook in the oven for 15 minutes or until the potato is bubbly and browned on top. Remove, let stand for 10-20 minutes and then serve.
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