Born in Peru, adopted by the Portuguese in the 16th Century, the humble potato came to India with traders. The British, however, were the ones who promoted their widespread cultivation across the Indian subcontinent. Today, we can’t imagine life, let along survival through lockdowns, without the veggie.
Can you imagine Vada Pav without the potato fritter inside? Would pani puri, phuchka or any chaat taste the same without potatoes? What would Bengalis put in everything from Shukto to biryani if the humble potato didn’t exist? What would Punjabis and North Indians stuff their parathas with or have on the side of puris? It doesn’t matter what part of India you are from, potatoes are a woven into the very fabric of your existence.
Yes, you could try to eliminate the veggie from your diet because experts say overeating it can lead to weight gain, to say the least. But the simple fact of life for most of us is that eliminating potatoes from a diet is easier said than done. If you are Indian, you have grown up eating potatoes in myriads of forms for breakfast, lunch, evening snack and dinner. But did you know, potatoes might have been adopted by us Indians, but it wasn’t born here?
Potatoes Were Born To Be Travellers
Today, potatoes are the fifth most important crop in the world, but when it was born, people didn’t take to it immediately. Indigenous to the region now known as Peru, potato was a tuber consumed by the native populations of the continent. It is believed that potatoes grew in their wild form for centuries beside Peru’s biggest lake, Titicaca, until ancient Incan farmers discovered them. Fascinated by their shape, varieties and colours, they domesticated the root veggie and it became a staple in their diet.
The voyages of Christopher Columbus in the sixteenth century exposed the Europeans to the humble potato for the first time. The open trade routes meant that soon, the potato travelled to Europe, Africa and Asia. What’s even more intriguing is that because they are very easy to grow, every nation that the potato travelled to took up its cultivation. The veggie was filling and nutritious, which is why it soon became an answer to the world’s growing food shortages in Europe, with even rulers taking to promoting the cultivation of the veggie.
The most famous instance is perhaps from France, where king Louis XVI put potato blossoms on his buttonhole, while Marie Antoinette put them in her hair. The French aristocracy soon followed suit, and the French court took potato blossoms around like mascots, promoting their adoption for widespread cultivation by farmers. The veggie was so popular that even today, French cuisine boasts of so many potato-based gems. Potato led to the rise of nations and their cuisines. Some historians, in fact, argue that potatoes solved the food issues of Europe, enabling their population to become colonisers.
Potatoes In India: A Culinary Love Story
India had long been a part of the global trading circuit, which is how the Portuguese and Dutch traders were first able to introduce the veggie in the Malabar coastline. Yet, its cultivation did not extend beyond the region until the eighteenth century, when the British East India Company came along with a brilliant—but in no way noble—plan. Their idea was to promote the cultivation and use of potatoes among India’s farming population, so that the output could be increased and Britain could compete in the growing global market for potato trading in the world. So, the British brought potato seeds and saplings to India and sold them to the farmers, predominantly across the Bengal Presidency (now Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and Bangladesh) and the hills of North India, for a pittance. Potato cultivation in India picked up, and the soon, it was introduced to the Indian kitchen.
By introducing potatoes in India, the British had also hoped that other staples of the Indian diet—like rice and other local carbohydrate sources—would be replaced. Now this, as you know, didn’t pan out according to their plan. Historians Chitrita Banerji and Colleen Taylor Sen prove in their works that instead of replacing other foods, potatoes melded well with them. Bengalis added it to their vegetable medleys, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah added it to the famous Lucknowi biryani, and cuisines across India did the same for sabjis, curries, pulaos, khichdis and all sorts of foods. The rest is truly history.
In 2017, India produced 486,05,000 tonnes of potatoes—and with the help of many government schemes to aid farmers, potato cultivation, price moderation and consumptions continues to grow in the nation. During the COVID-19 pandemic, most Indian families first stocked up with rice, lentils and potatoes—the three basics every family needs for survival, especially during emergencies and lockdowns. That’s how integral the humble potato has become in our lives, and will continue to be.