The pure joy of being a potato eater
Nandita Iyer describes the many facets of the everyday potato and two interpretations of this humble tuber
My earliest memories of potatoes go back to the kitchen in my grandparents’ home in Wadala in Mumbai where Ammama (my maternal grandmother) would cook whole potatoes in a pressure cooker along with dal and rice. I was around 10 years old when I was allowed to try my hand at a simple potato dish. Ammama also shared with me the magic of rice flour, the secret ingredient to getting the perfect potato roast with a crispy crust.
My family was never one for a potato-heavy diet although my father went the other way. Whenever he had the chance to cook, potatoes would always be his first choice, and Amma says this stemmed from his days spent in Kolkata in the 1970s. According to her, the Bengalis made the best potato dishes, from aloo posto to aloor dum.
Main meals in our home all through the week featured a variety of seasonal vegetables. It was only once a week that potatoes were “indulged” in during our Sunday lunches. This was our equivalent of the Sunday roast which was neither British nor involved any meat. Instead it was the urulaikizhangu roast (potato roast) and vengaya sambhar (onion sambhar) that took centre stage. If for some reason this particular menu did not make it to the Sunday lunch, potatoes would show up at the 4pm tiffin in the form of pooris with a thick and spicy aloo masala gravy.
If I had to pick one amazing quality in this tuber, it would be its ability to stretch any dish. While buying vegetables from the van that comes into our building society, I often launch into conversations with my neighbours. One of them, Lavanya, whose husband is Assamese, mentioned that his side of the family doesn’t cook a single dish without potatoes: be it fish, chicken, mutton, vegetables or greens. It made me think that adding potatoes could add heft to any dish, while absorbing all the flavours of the main ingredient. A neat lesson in home economics.
There are over 47 varieties of potatoes grown in India, with names like Chandramukhi, Babar, Ashoka and Sutlej, no less regal than the Yukon Gold or Red Bliss varietals in the US. However, for the lay person, all we go by are descriptors like floury, waxy, old, new. The new potatoes are thin skinned, low in starch and high in moisture. They are waxy in nature when cooked and hold their shape well. This variety is best for roasting, boiling and vegetable dishes. Old potatoes have thicker skins, higher starch, lower sugar and moisture content. Cooked versions of these potatoes have a floury texture inside and are best suited for fries, chips and mashed potatoes. The low sugar content ensures that they don’t burn when deep-fried.
While fries and chips are not healthy, potatoes by themselves are a wholesome food, providing complex carbohydrates with fibre, protein, potassium, vitamin C and folic acid, among other nutrients. To harness these, cook potatoes with the skin intact. Refrigerating boiled potatoes overnight bumps up their resistant starch, causing a slower rise in blood sugar and providing fodder to the good bacteria in the gut. Here are two ways to enjoy its goodness.
4 medium-sized boiled potatoes
1 tbsp coconut oil
Pinch of asafoetida
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tbsp chana dal
1-2 tbsp urad dal
2 sprigs curry leaves
2-3 green chilies, finely chopped
1-inch piece of ginger, grated
1 tsp salt
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsp fresh grated coconut
1-2 tbsp fresh coriander leaves
Peel and crumble the boiled potatoes. Heat oil in a pan. Add asafoetida and mustard seeds. Once the seeds splutter, add the chana dal and urad dal, frying on medium heat until golden brown. Toss in the curry leaves, green chillies and ginger and fry for 30 seconds.
Add the crumbled potatoes and salt and mix well. Cover and cook for 4-5 minutes so that the potatoes absorb the aromatics. Turn off the heat. Squeeze lemon juice and stir to combine. Garnish with grated coconut and coriander leaves and serve with rasam and rice.
4 medium-sized boiled potatoes
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
2-3 sprigs curry leaves
For the ‘podi’
3 tbsp chana dal
3 tbsp toor dal
1 tbsp white sesame seeds
4-5 dried red chillies
3/4 tsp salt
Toast the dals in a heavy-bottomed pan on medium flame for 7-8 minutes until aromatic and a few shades darker. Remove to a dish. In the same hot pan, toast sesame seeds until the crackling sounds stop. Remove to a dish to cool.
Fry the chillies until crisp. In a small mixer jar, blitz the roasted dals, sesame seeds, chillies and salt to get a coarse powder (podi). Peel and quarter the potatoes. In a bowl, toss the potatoes in the podi. Fry mustard seeds and curry leaves in a little oil until the seeds splutter. Add potatoes and toss on a low heat for 4-5 minutes until the podi forms a crust around the potatoes. Serve hot.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer is the author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian.
She tweets at @saffrontrail