As a kid growing up surrounded by Punjabi friends, one of the mainstays of my life was a breakfast of delectable, melt-in-the-mouth aloo parathas with yoghurt and pickle. Years later, I still make or order aloo parathas when I yearn for the days gone by. The humble aloo or potato is a pivotal vegetable that has made its way to pretty much every dish I can think of. From ordering fries for the table to looking for perfectly spiced potato chunks in my mum’s mutton curry, potatoes are everywhere, and I’m always looking for them.
Where art thee from, O potato?
In the history of the world, the very first potato cultivators were the Incans from Peru who began farming potatoes between 8,000-5,000 BC. The Spaniards who invaded Peru brought potatoes to Europe in 1536, and over the next few decades this humble root vegetable spread to the rest of Europe. When the original colonialists left their home shores for India, China, and other places across Asia, they carried their favourite potatoes with them. By then, potatoes had become the most consumed food item in Europe. And the rest of the world was just waiting in line. Surprisingly, you cannot attribute the dawn of potatoes in India to the British colonialists—they safeguarded their favourite root vegetable with a vengeance and treated it as some kind of an elite cuisine item. So who taught us how to farm and cook aloo then? Once again, we have the colonialists with a culinary twist—the Portuguese—to thank.
We took it from there
Potatoes are known by many sobriquets which include aloo and batata. Did you know that we use the word ‘batata’ because that is what the Portuguese call it? Not only did they give us some potatoes to taste, but according to the late food historian Dr KT Achaya, they can also be credited for helping to start the first ever potato farms cultivated for and by locals in 1830 at the slopes of the sylvan Dehradun.
Potatoes – then and now
Potato frenzy has never really let go of the popular imagination of Indian ever since the first farm. In 1935, the Central Potato Research Institute was established at Shimla. Today, there are seven other regional branches of the Central Potato Research Institute. All this research has not been in vain. Currently, we have over 1,200 varieties of potatoes grown in India, and have successfully produced more than 40 high-yield types.
That’s not all—our efforts to understand and improve this high-energy tuber are being applied at the global research unit that is trying to sequence the potato genome. Based in the Netherlands, this project hopes to identify and sequence all the genes in over 5,000 varieties of potatoes. Potatoes are also the first vegetable to be grown in space. The University of Wisconsin in Madison and NASA invented the technology so as to feed astronauts on deep space missions as well as potential space colonies in the future. My mother would happily share her aloo paratha and batata vada recipes with her counterparts in Mars. Just saying.