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The humble potato: A cross-continental romance
Born into the Kayastha clan known for its culinary delights, I was considered a freak, for I chose to delve only on potatoes and shunned everything else.

My mother, known for her cooking despaired, trying to make my potatoes taste like kebabs!

However, my self confidence was restored when at Allahabad University; Prof NR Dhar held a series of popular evening lectures on the virtues of this underground tuber. It was a complete food: while it gave you energy, it was rich in minerals and fibre. Its rich skin was not to be peeled away. Over frying killed its virtues and boiling leached away its minerals. If boiled, the water was not to be thrown away, but to be used for rest of the cooking. It was best taken in roasted form or grilled as in a barbecue.

Here in Mumbai, the potato is known as 'batata'. I thought that it was a Marathi name. It was only when I landed up in Lisbon, that I realised it was a Portuguese name, and brought to India by Vasco De Gama and crew. They in turn had desperately been trying to brave the rough seas, to find a spice sea route to what is now Kerala. So they gave us the 'aaloo' (rhymes with Lalu!) and took away our prized pepper. This is the stuff history is made of! For it changed Indian history in many ways.

Potato was the staple food of Ireland. Its Great Potato Famine (1845-52) drove a million desperate starving Irishmen in waves to America. Two such Irish families, the Kennedys and the Fitzgeralds settled in the Boston area. Who would have imagined that, these two immigrant families would one day give the United States its first Roman Catholic President – John Fitzgerald Kennedy! All thanks, to the potato.

In certain of our rituals no food is cooked, which is not indigenous to India. So potatoes and its cousins – the tomatoes, chillies, brinjals would automatically be excluded! So also maize and corn! They are all firangi !!! These are the gift to mankind from the Americas, particularly South America.

Had Columbus not found the New World and had the rapacious Spanish Conquistadors not searched for the mythical El Dorado, whose streets were paved with gold, they would not have run into Incas of Peru, who indeed had a lot of gold, and had been cultivating potatoes from 8,000 BC.

Elizabethan explorer and adventurer, Sir Walter Raleigh introduced potatoes to Ireland in 1589. In a few decades the potato spread to the rest of Europe.

So some of the under currents of apparently unconnected history, bring potatoes, tomatoes, brinjals and green chilies to my vegetarian thali. My Punjabi friends would also have been compldetely at a loss without their 'makke di roti'. After all 'makka' is a phoren import from America and not desi!

Talking of 'aaloos', unfortunately my favourite snack the samosa cannot claim to be hundred percent 'sudh desi'. "Samosas were introduced to the Indian subcontinent in the 13th or 14th century by traders from Central Asia. Amir Khusro (1253–1325), a scholar and the royal poet of the Delhi Sultanate, wrote in around 1300 CE that the princes and nobles enjoyed the samosa prepared from meat, ghee, onion and so on".

Today, particularly in this globalised world we realise that the entire human history has gone into shaping each one of us and our lifestyles. As the mystic poet, John Donne wrote:

No man is an island
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main. …………
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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