By Chandrima Pal Oct. 04, 2019
A potato-less diet makes me a social misfit in Kolkata. You can take the egg from the roll, but there’s no way to take the aloo from the posto.
The most dramatic event in the calendar of my personal history remains the day I renounced potatoes. Innocuous and uneventful as it may sound to you, giving up potatoes for a Bengali is akin to Akshay Kumar giving up on deshbhakti films: a cause for potential self-sabotage. The average Bengali’s introduction to the world of food is usually through potatoes. We move from mama’s milk to aloo sheddho bhaat faster than it takes for boycott hashtags to trend on Twitter. Aloo is the Aadhaar card of Bengali cuisine: our identities are inexplicably linked to it. You can take the egg from the roll, but there’s no way to take the aloo from the posto.
I get that for most people, aloo might just be another sabzi, but for us it’s the language of our cultural identity. Starchy rice with boiled potatoes mixed with a spot of ghee might seem like a disaster for nutrition experts, but is high art for the everyday Bengali. The sight of dal rice and aloo bhaja (where we cut the potatoes in juliennes and fry the hell out of it), makes us go weak at the knees. Leisurely breakfasts with white fluffy luchi and sada alur torkari (a pale potato dish tempered with nigella seeds and asafoetida), brings out the poet in us.
Winter mornings are all about green koraishutir kochuri and aloo dum. What is the Calcutta Biryani, if not for the addition of potatoes? And no Sunday mutton kosha or chicken jhol is complete without chunky potatoes cooked to perfection. Even the Bengali samosa pays a rich tribute to its eternal love affair with the potato — we do not pound it to a dismal black paste, but dice it well, often with skin on, so we can relish it. And more importantly, our phuchka (pani puri for the uncultured) is unimaginable without potatoes, mashed to a toothpaste consistency and mixed with spices that explode in your mouth.
Giving up on potatoes then, is a supreme act of self negation that commands terrific self-control and displays a knack for self-harm. So why would I want to sever such a spiritual, karmic, and emotional bond?
It all started with my mother — where most stories begin. One fine day, in what came as a shock, we discovered that she had been acutely diabetic for a while. Along with her favourite jalebis, she was to cut down on rice and potatoes. My mother responded to this diktat with the usual belligerence of a Bengali — “manchhi na, manbo na” (cannot accept, will not accept — the war cry of the combative communists). Since that day, we have watched in utter dismay as she continued to devour jalebis and potatoes like a person possessed. It freaked me out. So almost as if to counter her wilful disregard for her health, I began to give up everything on her list, as if it would somehow make up. And I started with potatoes, the villain in this piece.
Giving up on potatoes then, is a supreme act of self negation that commands terrific self-control and displays a knack for self-harm.
As I was soon to discover, a diet without the starchy veggie makes me a social misfit. It is easier to find a restaurant or a takeaway serving vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar- free, chemical-free, oil-free, hands-free, cage-free, carb-free, and cruelty-free meals, than finding a wholesome, soul-nourishing substitute for the potato. No, paneer does not cut it. There are things you can do to the potato that you cannot even think of doing to any other vegetable or fruit. Boil it, fry it, mash it, peel it, curry it, roast it, fry and eat the skin, grate to bake it, grill it, slice, dice, cube it — the potato remains gloriously sinful.
While the potato can be the star in any dish, it works equally well in a team. Compare it to the trouble you need to take to make gobhi shine in an aloo gobhi dish, how much you sweat over a perfectly roasted baingan, or the tantrums of the bhindi, the most deceptively high-maintenance member of the vegetable family. The potato on the other hand, is always easy to please. Just like Bengalis in the afternoon: A bed and a nap is all we want. Think about it, a pav bhaji without the wholesomeness of potatoes just does not have the same sass. A cheesy, flavourful jacket potato cannot be substituted by roasted pumpkin. And you can never get your money’s worth at a sandwichwallah if there are no buttery slices of potatoes between your slices of bread.
The absence of potatoes in my life is playing havoc with my system. There was a time in when I would walk out of my gym, head straight for the vada pav stall and treat myself to a butter grilled vada pav to compensate for the toruture I had just inflicted on my body. Now every time I walk past the stall, there is a lump in my throat and an ache in my heart… er… belly. Every Sunday morning, when the family digs into luchi and aloor torkari, I tuck into my bowl of overnight oats and wish them a thousand scourges. The phuchka wala shakes his head in disgust everytime I say no to potatoes. There is no comfort in my food anymore.
And so it has been for the past eight months or so. With Durga Pujo, our annual tryst with feasting and fashion, here I will be tested. My resolve will be tossed into the fire of a culinary carnival that will feature the potato in all its seductive glory. There will be biryani with chunky potatoes luring me, khichuri bhog and phuchka stalls will tempt me with the “makha” or the spicy mash, and an assortment of bhaja-bhuji, chop cutlets will sneak in the aloo in some form or the other. In the battleground of my potato-less life, “Winter is coming. Hodor! Hodor!”
Chandrima Pal is a journalist, columnist, career insomniac and caffeine snob. Loves food. Does travel. Author of A Song for I (Amaryllis) and At Home in Mumbai (Harper Collins).