Journey of the potato: From Andes to outer space

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on August 31, 2019

Land, ahoy: The potato arrived in India with the Portuguese in the 16th century   -  ISTOCK.COM

The beloved aloo ventured into Indian cuisines only about 200 years ago. It was born on the slopes of the Andes in South America and has travelled around the world like a true-blue explorer

It’s a conversation that’s as predictable as cracker smoke during Diwali. Or traffic jams during the Mumbai rush hour.

Every few weeks, my husband gets into balanced-diet mode at dinnertime. He insists that our three daughters eat at least one spoonful of the vegetable du jour. The girls react with piteous mewls and a list of allergies, real and imagined.

At some point during this battle, my husband exclaims, “Isn’t there a single vegetable that you like?”

To which my girls respond in righteous indignation. “Of course, there is. We looooove potatoes.” After which it’s my husband’s turn to look indignant, and mine to giggle.

Like my daughters, I adore potatoes in all their sinful glory: Golden crisps laden with unhealthy quantities of salt that can perk up the dullest dinner; fat chips doused with vinegar at a greasy spoon in a damp English town; a wodge of hash brown potatoes at Denny’s, the American all-day-breakfast chain; skinny French fries in a red paper cup that make the trip to McDonald’s almost worthwhile; the stuffing of a plump, well-spiced Punjabi samosa at Dave Farsan.

For that matter, I love potatoes in their virtuous avatars as well. Aloo bhaji lightly spiced with jeera; a hearty aloo paratha served warm with cold dahi; a bland, soothing mashed potato; the glorious Turkish kumpir — a giant potato baked in its jacket and then loaded with mayo, corn, pickles, sausages, salads, cheese, mushrooms, whatever; the fried yellow chunks that are definitely my favourite bits of a rich biryani.

It always comes as a bit of a shock that both tomatoes and potatoes are actually new kids in town. And the aloo, for example, ventured into our cuisine just about 200 years ago.

It’s a miracle it got here at all, given that it originated on the remote slopes of the volcano-riddled Andes. To compound matters, the plant belongs to the deadly nightshade family and the wild tubers are laced with toxic substances. Animals such as the guanaco and vicuna eat wild potatoes only after they have licked clay, which absorbs the toxins.

Sometime between 8000 and 5000 BC, the Incas observed the guanaco and vicuna munching away at these poisonous treats without ill-effect. Mimicking the animals, they started dipping potatoes in a clay slurry, in an attempt to leach the poison. The strategy worked and potatoes became a mainstay of their diet.

Over the centuries, the Incas managed to breed less poisonous potato plants. In fact, Peru today has almost 5,000 different varieties, each equipped to deal with specific altitudes, soils and temperatures. Meanwhile, the original wild and poisonous version is still sold in the remote markets of Peru and Bolivia along with a handful of clay dust.

When the Spanish arrived in this far-flung corner of South America in the 16th century, they were intrigued by the lumpy, round vegetable. They experimented with it and, soon, Spanish farmers were exporting potatoes to other countries in Europe — to an admittedly lukewarm welcome. Even in the 18th century, the philosopher Denis Diderot wrote, “No matter how you prepare it, the root is tasteless and starchy. It cannot be regarded as an enjoyable food, but it provides abundant, reasonably healthy food for men who want nothing but sustenance.”

The clergy disapproved of this new ingredient because it had not been mentioned in the Bible. Protestant England was downright suspicious, and associated potatoes with the Catholic Church. The French were equally sniffy about this “peasant food” till Antoine-Augustin Parmentier stepped into the fray.

Parmentier was a pharmacist who had served in the French army and spent considerable time in the Prussian prisons, where he developed an appreciation for the lowly spud. He believed that it was one crop that could vanquish the perennial problems of hunger and starvation in Europe. Back home in France, he organised potato banquets, urged Queen Marie Antoinette to wear the purple posy in her hair and created a fad with the flair of a seasoned Instagrammer.

Overnight, the potato metamorphosed from lumpy, clumpy vegetable to a royal star. Europe embraced the crop and finally began to generate enough food for its people. And the stage was set for the arrival of that most addictive snack of all times: Potato wafers.

Meanwhile, the potato continued with its globetrotting ways. It arrived in India with the Portuguese in the 16th century. But it was much later that the British began to encourage its cultivation in Bengal. The East India Company gave the princely sum of ₹100 to every farmer willing to switch to potatoes — and maintained that “happiness till now unknown in India, will be diffused abroad”.

Gradually, the rare vegetable became commonplace. It appeared on the dinner table of the more adventurous memsahibs, and in Indo-Islamic cuisine. From there it was a short step to aloo tikkis and aloo matar.

And the journey doesn’t end here. In 1995, the potato became the first vegetable to be grown in space — and it’s entirely likely that it will one day be the staple food of science fiction and space colonies.

Paddington Bear, the other great stowaway from Darkest Peru, once remarked, “Things are always happening to me. I’m that sort of bear.” Clearly, the potato is that sort of vegetable.


Peruvian potato salad
  • Ingredients
  • 5 potatoes
  • 2 eggs
  • 100 g feta cheese
  • 50 g cheddar
  • 1/2 yellow pepper, deseeded and chopped
  • 1/2 chilli pepper, deseeded and chopped
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 clove of garlic, chopped
  • 100 ml single cream
  • Small bunch of parsley, finely chopped
  • Handful of walnuts (optional)
  • Olive oil, salt and pepper.
  • Method
  • 1 Put the potatoes whole into a baking dish and add liberal quantities of olive oil, salt and pepper, rubbing the seasoning into the skin of the potatoes. Bake for around half an hour at 180°F or until cooked through and crispy on the outside.
  • 2 Fry the shallot, chilli, yellow pepper and garlic; then add it to the cheese, cream and walnuts in a mixing bowl and combine using a blender. Add salt and pepper.
  • 3 Hard boil the eggs and remove the shells. Cut each egg into four or five pieces.
  • 4 Once the potatoes are cooked to your liking, chop each one into four or five pieces. Layer the sauce and the hard-boiled egg pieces over the top and sprinkle with parsley and other toppings like olives. Serve hot or cool.


Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author

Published on August 30, 2019

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