The Humble Potato’s Proud Rise In Indian Cuisine
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In the Nimatnama, or "the Book of Delights," a medieval cookbook from India, there are as many as eight recipes for the samosa. Clearly, the dish was a favorite of Sultan Ghiyas al-Din Khilji, who ruled over Malwa from 1469 to 1500 and under whose patronage the Nimatnamawas written. But you'd be surprised to learn that those samosas contained no potatoes! The royals there enjoyed having their samosas stuffed with a combination of minced meat and aubergine, perfumed with saffron and rosewater. "Jab takrahegasamosemein aloo..." should give us an indication about the ubiquity of the vegetable in India’s favorite snack, and yet, we find that one of the earliest recipes of the samosa did not feature the potato. Because, well, there was simply no potato back then.

It is versatile enough to take on the flavors of whatever dish you add it to. A boiled potato can be a lifesaver for people who cannot afford much else. The crop failure in Ireland in 1845 killed hundreds of thousands of people and changed the country forever. It can find a place in breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack. It is the most popular vegetable in the world. It was the first vegetable grown in outer space. Simply put, the humble potato has had quite the journey. Consider the iconic dishes of the country—vada pav, pav bhaji, masala dosa, aloo posto, aloo poori, aloo paratha, aloo bhaji, aloo bhujiya, samosa—and you will find that the potato is the unifying thread. You would think the potato has been among us since time immemorial considering just how enthusiastically we have adopted it. Except, it’s a rather recent addition to our food.

So, when exactly did the potato come to India? And how? 

Colonialism is obviously the easy answer, and it is obviously correct. But there are still some questions about its exact arrival.

By the end of the 15th century, two voyages that set off from the Iberian Peninsula changed the world as we know it. Europeans, for the love of spice, specifically pepper, wanted to find a direct sea route to India as opposed to having to buy their favorite spices via middlemen in central Asia. In 1492, Christopher Columbus set off and found… well, not India but a whole new world. Later in 1498, Vasco da Gama did succeed and find India, and the rest is bloody, bloody history. It will not be ironic that the cruelties and injustices of colonialism were also responsible for some of our greatest pleasures, potatoes included. The new world Columbus found abounded in produce the old world had never seen—tomatoes, maize, cashews, groundnuts, chilies, papaya, guava, chikoo, bell pepper, pineapple, tobacco, vanilla, avocado, beans, pumpkins, blueberries, and potatoes. The potato is believed to be indigenous to the region we now call Peru, and from there, via the conquistadors, the crop spread to Europe. From there, the Dutch or the Portuguese brought it to India in perhaps the 16th century.

The potato had captured the imagination of Europe. Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations, waxes eloquent about the potato and claims that the reason the Irish were "the strongest men and the most beautiful women of Britain" was because they ate it. Some historians have claimed that one of the reasons for the rise of the West was the widespread cultivation and ease of availability of the potato, which fed people well and got them working. Indeed, the East India Company promoted the idea that the potato was an "embodiment of happiness" and aggressively promoted the cultivation of potatoes in India. It was also part of their "civilizing mission" in the country. One 1800 report by the Bengal Revenue Commission said that the tuber would help "alleviate the migraines" in India caused by the frequent failures of the rice crop. And yet, despite these best efforts, the potato didn’t quite catch on. Potatoes were still so rare in India in 1780 that when Governor General Warren Hastings received a dozen pounds of potatoes, he was so delighted that he organized a high society party to share this "rare vegetable."

One Indian province that really took to potatoes was Bengal. Lord Amherst, governor-general in 1823, orderedthat potatoes be planted in the park at Barrackpore. As inhabitants of the nerve center of the empire, someclaim the Bengalis were keener to be seen as "civilized" and took to it with enthusiasm. Perhaps the texture and "soakability" of the potato contrasted well with the sharp flavors of mustard seeds and cumin seeds so common to Bengali cooking. By the late 19th century, potato was being grown all over Bengal, and it is from Bengal that the tuber spread inland. And how.  

It is impossible to overstate the importance of potatoes in Indian cuisines. Potato price fluctuations can bring down governments. Not bad for a humble tuber.