When the Bengali met the Potato


There’s a joke, “Why do potatoes make good detectives? Because they keep their eyes peeled.” To add to that, Bengal has a cultural and literary history of producing fatafati (excellent) detectives. It is said that during the colonial era, the British governing Calcutta realized that Bengali sleuths were a prerequisite for effective policing due to their intellect and local knowledge. So Potatoes and Bengalis have this bit in common: they both make good detectives! Or do you think it is the overt love for eating potatoes that makes the Bengali one? (Hmm…potato for thought!)

Food is almost synonymous with potato in most Bengali households. Meat curry, egg curry, fish curry, vegetarian preparations–you name it– the potato participates in all of them. West Bengal has a popular dish called aloo-posto. It is a simple yet sumptuous dish made of  poppy-seed paste (no, not opium!) and freshly-diced potatoes. There are a hundred other dishes that incorporate the potato in them. People from other parts of India often find it rather over-used in Bengali cuisine. “Prawns with potatoes! I’ve never encountered that combination before”, said a friend of ours from Mumbai. I am not surprised…after all it was in Bengal that even the Lucknowi version of Biryani fell for the potato trap. Oh yes, it’s a sweet trap to fall into…Bengalis usually love eating potatoes and believe that it adds taste to most dishes.

Potatoes were introduced to India in the seventeenth century by Portuguese traders. However, it was the British who cultivated the love for potatoes in Bengal. While the rest of the country managed a healthy fixation with the root vegetable, Bengal fell hook, line and sinkers in love with potatoes. Food historian, Chitrita Banerji (1997:139), observes, “Bengalis are probably the greatest potato eaters in the world” next to “the Irish”. History has it that these root tubers were first cultivated by the Aymaras and Incas in the Andes and other parts of South America. The Native Americans would roast, boil and stew these vegetables and make potato starch. It is said to have fed the Incan army and later the European empire. Following the Spanish Conquest in the sixteenth century, potatoes were introduced to the rest of the world through Europe. In fact, potatoes helped sustain a Europe that was afflicted with hunger and famines, until it too became the staple diet there as it used to be amongst the Native Americans. Okay, enough of history now! The potato is again taking over the topic of the Bengali…

Potatoes and Bengalis have something in common, a possible explanation for the widespread love for this root vegetable: they seamlessly adapt. Potatoes to dishes and Bengalis to new cultures (especially foreign: from Communism to Russian folk tales to Cuban cigars to English or bileti ways). We assimilate like potatoes do in dishes. Others find this slightly distressing….but a potato for a Bengali is highly de-stressing! They can have it anywhere right from mutton curries to poppy-seed concoctions. Name it and you have it. Even the Nawab of Oudh, Wajid Shah, wasn’t spared (no, I don’t mean the British who dethroned him and forced him into exile in 1856). It was a two-way exchange: the nawab’s cooks introduced the Mughal Lucknow biryani to Calcutta and Calcutta completed the missing taste in it with potatoes, and thus was born the biryani with the rare combination of meat, eggs and potatoes.

In the context of the potato and the Bengali, I am strangely reminded of the Dutch painter Van Gogh’s painting entitled ‘The Potato Eaters’ (1885). Just imagine, if an artist in India came up with a title like that, it would bring to mind the image of a clan of pot-bellied Bengalis dancing around pots of potatoes. After all, that’s where the intellect comes from…who said it’s the fish?!




Author: Miss Microscope

Miss Microscope looks minutely into books, culture, society, technology, mythology, astrology, and numerology, to tell you stories.

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