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Could someone plan a restaurant menu only around Indian potato dishes?

If the choice of subject for this week’s column strikes you as being a little eccentric, then please forgive me.

But I am writing this in Spain. As you probably know, the potato was unknown to most of the world till Christopher Columbus discovered what he thought was India but turned out to be the West Indies.


Among the treasures Columbus and his sailors came back to Spain with was the potato, which, till that point, was known only in South and Central America. The Spanish took the potato around the world and it remains a staple of their diet. Even the famous Spanish omelette is really a potato dish and patatas bravas is a dish that has now travelled around the world. If you eat only potatoes in Spain, you cannot eat badly. The Spanish are so good with potatoes that even their crisps (wafers) taste like golden discs of sunlight.


   The Spanish obsession with potatoes got me thinking: why don’t we make more of the great potato dishes of India’s many cuisines?


   The potato was brought to India by Europeans and only planted widely during the British period. But such is the genius of Indian cuisine that we have made it our own.


   Could someone, I wondered idly, plan a restaurant menu only around Indian potato dishes?


   The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that it was indeed possible. I will never ever run a restaurant myself. But if I did, I would probably call it Batata Bhavan.


   And this is what the menu would contain.


Aloo tikkis: I just love aloo tikkis. I like them as part of a dahi and chutney chaat and I think they make a perfect accompaniment to chaat-style chanas. At home, there are always McCain’s frozen aloo tikkis in the fridge and I eat them with everything, from Western dishes (where they replace hash browns) to good, simple Indian food.  On my dream menu, I would probably serve them with chana, with spicy chutney poured over both ingredients and kaccha pyaaz.


Papeta par eeda: Anahita Dhondy, the chef at the SodabottleOpenerWala restaurants, tells me that the standing joke at all her restaurants is that the moment I walk in, they know what I am going to order. It is always this Parsi dish of potatoes sautéed with onions. You break two eggs (more if you are a Parsi) over the potatoes and let them set but you always keep the yolks runny. It is not a difficult dish to make but it takes real skill to get it absolutely right.


Dahi batata puri: You get versions of this dish all over India but the best version is only available in Mumbai. You stuff the puris with boiled potato, some sprouts, a little gram and then fill the puri up with dahi and chutney. Delicious.


Masala dosas: Yeah, I know. Good South Indians don’t eat these at home. They are a restaurant creation, popularised by Udupi restaurants. Fair enough. But they are still the classic Indian fast food, a dish that is easy to make, not expensive and fills your stomach with freshly-cooked food (unlike American fast food which relies on fridges and preservatives). I would certainly have masala dosas, with their delicious potato filling on my menu.


Bataka nu shaak: This is hard to find outside a Gujarati home. It consists of potatoes cut into small dices and then cooked (dry) with masala till they are a little crisp on the outside. You eat the sabzi with puris or theplas.


Potato chop: A dish I grew fond of during my years in Calcutta. The Bengalis like to make a mashed potato cutlet with spicy keema in the centre. It is a concept that works across cuisines: shepherd’s pie is the same general idea. But the Bengalis do it so much better than anybody else.


  "The shingara is a Bengali sort-of-samosa. It’s filled with potatoes and peanuts but it has lots of masala and an unforgettable spicy taste." 

Khatta aloo: In Gujarat, we call potatoes bataka, a corruption, I would imagine, of batata, the Portuguese word for potato. But this dish uses the term aloo and, Gujaratis will tell you, is not indigenous to our state.


   There is a long tradition of Marwari/Rajasthani cooks from the Abu area coming across the border to Gujarat and bringing their cuisine with them. This dish is sometimes also called Marwari Bataka for that reason. It is a sabzi of potatoes with a thin gravy that is distinguished by a khatta tang.


Dum Aloo: I am not going to enter into a debate about the origin of this dish or about the best version thereof. I believe it probably came from Kashmir. But there are many regional variations, all of which are nice. At least one of these variations would be on my menu.


Halwai wafers: When I was a small boy, we did not have Lays or any such brand of pre-packaged chips. Hell, we didn’t even call them chips in those days. We called them wafers. (Chips were what Americans – and now Indians – call French fries.)


   Instead, we would buy our wafers fresh from a local shop where the cook (not necessarily a halwai; the actor Boman Irani comes from a family that ran a wafer shop) would make them fresh and sell them by weight.


   They did not have the thin, brittle quality you find in packaged wafers (chips) and were chunkier and tastier. Sadly, that kind of wafer shop has almost totally died out in India. Abroad, however, those hand-cut, handmade wafers are back in favour. They call them kettle chips and sell them at three times the price of regular ‘chips’. At my imaginary restaurant, we would make fresh wafers every day.


Aloo tuk: The Indian street’s answer to Spain’s patatas bravas. These are crisp-fried potatoes, served ideally in a tokri, liberally laced with masala (chaat masala, usually) and chutney.


Aloo posto: Another favourite from my Calcutta days. This is a classic Bengali sabzi of potatoes cooked with poppy paste. Hard to find outside Bengal probably because poppy paste is not a typical Indian ingredient.


Chokha: Every region has its own version of this spicy mashed potato. The version we eat with khichri in my home is flavoured with mustard oil and it remains one of my favourite comfort foods.


Calcutta biryani: Ok, yeah, I know I am pushing the boundaries slightly by calling this a potato dish. But think about it: why do so many people prefer a Calcutta biryani to one from Hyderabad or Lucknow. It has to be the potatoes that are the defining feature of the biryani. One theory is that poor Bengali Muslims could not afford much meat so they started adding potatoes to their biryanis to compensate. At any rate, even rich people will now prefer to make the biryani with potatoes and meat rather than meat alone: the potato adds something that transforms the entire biryani.


Shingara: The Punjabi aloo samosa would not make it to my menu. The only samosa that would be allowed in would be the delicate, thin-skinned Bohra keema samosa. But that’s not a potato dish so I would include this close relative of the samosa.


   The shingara is a Bengali sort-of-samosa. It’s filled with potatoes and peanuts but it has lots of masala and an unforgettable spicy taste. And the pastry is not as doughy as the Punjabi version.


Batata wada: You can call it a bonda if you like; the two are closely related. The idea is that you take mashed potato and then spice it up (in Mumbai we use chilli, garlic, kothmir, nimbu etc.) before rolling it into small balls, covering it in besan and deep-frying it. The South Indian bonda has a slightly different recipe but they are clearly from the same family.


   And more? As you can tell, this is not enough for a menu. Nor is my list truly representative of India’s diversity. Looking at the geographical origin of these dishes, I would probably have to hire Bengali cooks who would always be arguing with each other and Gujarati maharajs who I would have to watch very carefully.


   But I am sure you can think of more potato dishes. Send me your suggestions on Twitter. I could do with some help!




  • MAROMI PANDA 25 Jun 2018

    Good to see that alu posto and alu makha (mashed pototao, a close relative of aloo chokha) made it to the menu!

Posted On: 16 Jun 2018 05:43 PM
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