No tuber as tempting as this one

POTATO LOVE

No tuber as tempting as this one

There is perhaps no other state that is so madly in love with this tuber as Bengal. For potato is no mere tuber for the Bengalis, it is an everyday staple, finds out Ajitha Menon.

What distinguishes the Kolkata biryani from its Hyderabadi or Lucknowi counterpart? Well, besides some variation in spices and cooking procedures, the one major addition to the Bengal version of this popular rice preparation is the potato. Biryani in Kolkata, the state capital of West Bengal, comes with a mandatory piece of potato, generous in its proportion, just to satisfy the Bengali’s love for this tuber. 

Sky-high prices

Skyrocketing potato prices because of unseasonal rains had seriously challenged this love story. From selling at Rs 9-13 a kilogram in August-September, prices touched Rs 40 in October. That was when Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee stepped in and banned the export of potatoes from Bengal to other states to ensure a steady supply of the vegetable at reasonable rates for the love-stricken, who just cannot do without their regular fix of dum aloo (potato on steam), aloo posto (potato and poppy) or aloo bhaja (potato fry). 

While Banerjee’s actions steadied prices at around Rs 13-15 per kilo in West Bengal, potato rates went through the ceiling – Rs 50 and above – in neighbouring Bihar, Odisha and Jharkhand, states that are dependent on potato supplies from Bengal, a state that produces about 10 million tonnes of the tuber annually. Almost 5.5 million tonnes of this is used up domestically while the rest is sent out. 

Everyday staple

“Potato is the filler in Bengali meals. In middle-class households particularly, it is added to vegetables, meat or fish to increase the quantity of the dishes and make them go a longer way. The price rise stunned households across Bengal. People don’t know what to do. This situation was extremely unfortunate because traders capitalised on the weather and created the crisis,” remarks Rakhi Dasgupta, culinary expert and a proprietor of  one of the top restaurants in the city specialising in traditional Bengali cuisine. 

Dasgupta points out that Bengal did not have potato cultivation earlier and the vegetable did not figure in the traditional diet. However, things changed with the advent of the Europeans. “Potato, an imported temperate crop, has been adapted well for cultivation under subtropical conditions. From its origin in the Andes in South America, it made its way to India via Europe in the 17th century,” reveals ‘Potato – An Ebook’ brought out by the Central Potato Research Institute (CPRI), Shimla. 

According to Dasgupta, “Bengalis take to foreign add-ons quickly and we liked the potato immensely. We first used it to increase the quantity of the food, later we tried it in dishes by itself, like the aloo dum. It w
as cheap and it was filling. And thereafter, rice, fish and potato became the staple diet.”Potato, she observes, then found its way into indigenous fast foods as well. It became the main ingredient in puchka (paani-puri), aloo kabli (potato-chickpea chaat) and chops – meat chop, vegetable chop, banana flower chop, and so on. It also started being used as a covering layer for fried snacks. 

All the goodnessOf course, the truly versatile potato is also known to be a good redeemer – it reduces excessive saltiness in food. “It can be used with or without jacket and it improves taste because of its ability to absorb flavours,” explains Dasgupta, adding, “although, nowadays, with the free use of chemical fertilisers during cultivation, it’s considered safer to remove the jackets off the potatoes.”

Most importantly, contrary to popular belief, this ‘starchy’ veggie is quite healthy. “Potato is highly nutritious. It contains most of the essential vitamins, minerals and proteins apart from starch, but has no fat,” reveals the CPRI Ebook. But while it has no inherent fat, it can become fatty when fried in oil, so instead of eating it fried, the boiled, baked, grilled or steamed potato dishes are always the healthier option.

“It is traditional that children in Bengal have dudhe aloo bhaat (a preparation of milk, potato and rice) and even adults enjoy aloo shiddho bhaat (boiled potato with rice). In fact, often for the busy office-goer, this is regular fare, as it is quick to make with potato and rice boiled together, occasionally with an egg or other vegetables,” says Rumki Mahapatra, a culinary consultant in Kolkata. 

A state emergency!

Restaurants cannot compromise on the use of potatoes or onions if they have to continue serving authentic Bengali cuisine. 

Considering that potato is ubiquitous in Bengali cuisine, the rising prices amount to a major food crisis. And when the potato starts vanishing from the biryani across restaurants in Bengal, well, then it’s a state emergency. So, those in other states will have to suffer depleted supplies, till the domestic demand is saturated at cheap, steady rates. As Dan Quayle, former US vice-president who got into trouble for not being able to spell ‘potato’ correctly, will attest – this is a vegetable that could make or break you! 

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