Aloo Sabzi: How The Humble Potato Changes Form Across India
Image Credit: Archana's Kitchen

Introduced to India during the colonial period, primarily by the Portuguese in the early 17th century – potatoes were brought to India from South America, where they were originally cultivated by indigenous communities. The Portuguese first introduced them in Goa, which was then a Portuguese colony from where it gradually spread to other parts of India through trade and the influence of European colonization. Although the root vegetable wasn’t immediately embraced across the entire subcontinent, it gained popularity over time due to their adaptability to various climates and their nutritional value.

Over the centuries, potatoes gradually made their way into various regional cuisines across India since they adapted well to different climates and were versatile in their use, which contributed to their popularity. A staple ingredient in numerous dishes like aloo mutter, dum aloo, aloo parathas and samosas, potatoes had firmly integrated into Indian cuisine by the 19th and 20th centuries. The versatility, affordability and easy adaptability made potatoes one of the most sought-after staple vegetables since then.

Speaking to Slurrp about why potatoes are prepared in a certain manner to stuff into dosas, home chef and former teacher Vatsala Suresh says, “The word masala refers to a mixture of spices, in this case, specifically refers to the flavourful potato filling within the dosa.” She adds that to the best of her knowledge the origins of masala dosa trace back to Udupi in the southern Indian state of Karnataka – where it is believed to have its roots. Known for its vegetarian dishes, the addition of the potato masala filling to the dosa is said to have originated in the Udupi restaurants, where it was introduced as a way of adding more substance and flavour to the dish.

On the other hand, food writer and anthropologist, Shirin Mehrotra points out that the raswale aloo – a flavourful Indian dish of potatoes cooked in a spiced tomato-based gravy most likely came about from a time when royal kitchens or the kitchens of wealthy traders would often host people of a higher caste (read: Brahmins), who only considered food cooked without onions and garlic to be ‘purified’ and vegetarian. The dish likely emerged as a regional specialty in different parts of India, particularly in North Indian cuisine – reminiscent of the culinary traditions prevalent in regions like Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and other northern states.

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While the exact historical origins of raswale aloo, like most traditional Indian dishes, might not be extensively documented, its development can be attributed to the creative use of locally available ingredients, spices, and cooking methods. While the essence of this cooking technique and concept remain the same between both – the South Indian and North Indian potato preparation, the ingredients used in each one differ vastly. Since its introduction to the country, the potato has undergone a remarkable evolution in Indian cuisine. Vatsala mentions that potatoes not only offer a substantial source of carbohydrates but also add substance and taste to vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes.

As culinary practices evolve, so does the use of potatoes. Vatsala quips that “Chefs and home cooks continue to experiment with this versatile tuber, incorporating it into new recipes and adapting it to contemporary tastes and dietary preferences. Look at those spiral potato snacks one can find at food stalls of Chennai beaches or the French fries you get at fast food chains. Who doesn’t love a well-cooked potato!” In modern Indian households, potatoes are a crucial element that form the base of many dishes – where they are added to biryanis, sabzis and even eaten in many a street food dishes like the vada pav or dahi bara aloo dum.

Where ancient Indian cuisine relied heavily on indigenous ingredients that were native to the Indian subcontinent, the introduction of potatoes was embraced by a collective acceptance that is difficult to find in most foreign ingredients. Potatoes, being a new world crop, were absent from the ancient Indian culinary repertoire; only to carve a place in its contemporary canvas as a leading contender for being popular due to its sheer simplicity. In a predominantly vegetarian country like India, potatoes serve as an essential ingredient in multiple vegetarian and vegan dishes.

Shirin is candid enough to admit that to her, potatoes have gone on from being just a sabzi that her mother prepared to transforming into the multiple global delicacies that intrigued her palate as she gathered more and more experience of food, over the years. In her opinion, it is the simplicity of potatoes that make them a special ingredient that has found a place in the diverse food landscape as a staple item, no matter what the preparation style.