A few days ago, I ordered a fish thali at an eatery that specialises in Assamese food. When the meal was served, I found myself drawn towards an item that wasn’t supposed to be the main draw — a dainty bowl with a mashed potato dish. There was something ineffably warm and homely about it. It reminded me of the aloo bhaathey (mashed potatoes with rice, mustard oil, ghee or butter) we used to have at home or the aloo chokha which some of my friends from Bihar often treat me to.
But the Assamese version seemed more flavoursome. Potatoes, boiled and mashed to a creamy texture, had acquired the pungency of the mustard oil, zest of the ginger and sharpness of the green chillies, which were tempered by sweetness of chopped onions. Coriander leaves issued welcome signs. This was aloo pitika, I was told, a comfort food for people in Assam.
Since the 17th century, when Europe’s pioneering navigators decided that the tuber from the New World would be a useful item to have in their stores, the food that fed people in the Inca empire for thousands of years — they called it papa — has come to exert its charm across the globe. Perhaps the potato’s greatest virtue lies in making friends as easily with a meat dish as with a medley of vegetables. Cumin, asafoetida, ginger and garam masala revel in its company. Whether as a creamy mash, roasted, baked, fried or made into a sandwich spread or samosa filling, the potato would easily be among the top comfort food ingredients in most parts of the world. John Reader, the author of what The Economist described as the biography of the spud, The Untold History of The Potato (2009), notes that the tuber “is grown in 148 of the 192 countries represented at the United Nations — more than can be said of any crop except maize”.
Come to think of it, my attraction towards the potato at the Assamese eatery owed as much to the aroma of the aloo pitika as to what the humble spud is known to do to our palates. I often find myself chomping a piece of the potato in the Kolkata biryani before savouring what are supposed to be the dish’s main elements. I guess I am not alone. For many, the aloo is the appetiser, which announces the flavours of the meat and rice dish. In many Bengali dishes, it’s the carrier of the aromas of the five-spice mixture — the paanch phoran.
The potato often gets bad press. That’s not new. When it was introduced in the West, Encyclopedia Britannica referred to it as the “demoralising esculent”. And, today, the world of nutrition is divided into the world of potato hecklers and those who extol its nutrient content. Perhaps, there is some truth in the theory which holds that combined with unhealthy amounts of oil, the carb-laden tuber does less than good. But, then, even the most resolute find it difficult to resist when an invitation to the sinful world of samosas, pakodas and aloo puris is issued by the potato.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Bon Appetit. The Incas Called it Papa’