Fry the red chilies, garlic, shallots and tomatoes in a pan Photo: Asia Times

Chilis, potatoes and tomatoes are indispensable components of Indian cuisine – North and South. Chilis are the most pervasive of condiments, while potatoes are an integral component of at least one main dish each in North, South and East Indian cuisine.

It would be a gross understatement to say that Bengalis use potato in every course of their meal. It finds a place in almost every dish.

Be it gravies of mutton, chicken, fish, any seasonal vegetables and curries, potatoes are a must. Then there is a special kind of savory potato curry preparation that is a staple Bengali breakfast. Some people even prefer the piece of potato inside mutton or chicken curry more than the actual pieces of meat.

When Nawab Wajid Ali, Shah of Oudh, was deposed and evicted by the British and exiled to Kolkata with a meager stipend, he was forced to re-adapt his lavish biryani, excising all precious condiments and garnish, relinquishing nuts, and most importantly replacing mutton with potato. Similarly, the great famines of Bengal, partly induced by drought and partly by mismanagement, misdirection and wartime diversion by the colonial rulers, gave rise to aaloo-poshto (potato and poppy seeds), today a cherished classic delicacy, but once a desperate innovation to avert starvation.

The British regime forced the cultivation of poppy, a convenient and handy cash crop, in place of the usual food crops, which contributed or perhaps even led to the famines – one of the worst crises of the century. At least 3 million perished. Three-fourths of the rural populace of the giant state were near-starved. The scarcity of usual food items compelled households to resort to what was abundant – poppy seeds. Potato was relatively easy to grow – it proliferated from eye-cuttings and was a subterranean tuber that could be grown in concealed places.

Potatoes have little to no taste of their own and hence are ideal for taking in the myriad spices of Indian cooking. Bengali cuisine’s affinity for potato is second to none, save perhaps the Irish

Potatoes have little to no taste of their own and hence are ideal for taking in the myriad spices of Indian cooking. Bengali cuisine’s affinity for potato is second to none, save perhaps the Irish. Moving on, tender-crisp stir-fried potato sticks (bhujia) and mashed potatoes (chokha) are North India’s standard breakfast and lunch accompaniment respectively. Down south, potatoes are the filling that makes the region’s most popular delicacy, dosas. India’s most famous street snack, samosa, is filled with mashed potatoes. Fried potatoes and potato cutlets are ubiquitous too.

Few Indians are aware that their convenient and multifarious dietary staple is only 450 years old in the subcontinent. Potato originated in South America and for a long time was primarily cultivated in Peru. The Portuguese colonialists introduced potatoes, which they called batata, to India in the early 17th century, cultivating it along the west coast. The Portuguese had found it in Latin America via their Spanish neighbors, and thus potato is another of the vestiges of the Maritime Great Exploration Age.

British traders introduced it to Bengal as a root crop, alu. It subsequently spread to the northern hill areas of India, where it thrived. As part of their “missionary white man’s burden” doctrine, genuinely convicted or otherwise, potato in effect became an expansionist and propaganda tool. The British equated it with “happiness,” and proposed it as an ideal means to alleviate the misery borne out of frequent rice-paddy failures, which required back-breaking investment in its lengthy, complicated and prone cultivation process.

Paddy rice was as difficult to process and cook as to cultivate. Potato, on the other hand, was pliable, flexible and readily consumable, and was prescribed as a dietary staple, envisaged on Irish lines. However, India, being the great assimilator that it is, simply augmented its cuisine with the new addition but didn’t displace the existent fare, just as it did with foreign religions, tongues, apparel and fragrances. India, the great, slow-melting pot never replaces, it harmonizes and syncretizes.

The absence of potato in the full-course food offering to Lord Jagannatha in Odisha also testifies to its foreign identity. The offering ritual, just as that in most Indian temples, has been carried down for five centuries pristinely unchanged. While the layman or commoner’s dietary staple of the region is rice, lentil and potato, the last is absent from the deity’s luncheon.

The foreign identity of the tomato is still retained in its Marathi name bilayati or vilayati, meaning “foreigner.” Interestingly, that’s where we get the English word “Blighty” from, originally used to refer to Englishmen, particularly colonialists in India, and later for British or overseas goods and products not known to India. The word is commonly used as a term of endearment by the expatriate British community or those on holiday to refer to home. Vilayati, an Urdu word, comes from Persian and ultimately Arabic vilayah meaning “state.”

Its names in Indian languages bear testimony to its extraterrestrial origins – Assamese bilahi bengena, Bengali bilati beguna or tamyato, Gujarati tamato, Hindi tamatar or vilayati-baingan, Kannada tomaato, Konkani tomato, Marathi belavangi or vilayati vangi, Punjabi wilaití bengan, and Urdu wilayati baigan. Most languages call it a “foreign brinjal” (baingan meaning brinjal, aubergine, or eggplant), which is scientifically correct given that both fruits are closely related, with very similar shoot and leaf structures.

Take a moment to appreciate the fact that the Aztec (Nahuatl) word tomatl, the original name for the fruit, went through three languages and yet remained largely unchanged, and a Mesoamerican word is today a very popular word in most Indo-European and Indo-Dravidian tongues. Tomatl went through Spanish, Portuguese and English to Konkani and Kannada (regions of their first introduction) as such, with the change of a single sound.

Tomatoes and chilis were brought to South India by the Marathas, who also brought the practice of eating select muttons and other meats to the region, even among the so-called upper castes, who usually refrained from most meats. Tomato was important for cooking luscious gravies in. Maratha expeditions and ambitious, daring forays into northern territories spread the chilis into North India.

Indian right-wing ideologues repeatedly hail “traditional Indian food” as a complete, self-sufficient balanced diet, often with semi-divine, transcendental or spiritual fortifying qualities ascribed, picturing it complete with chilis, tomatoes and potatoes, and laud the benefits of tomatoes and chilis in their beloved “traditional” remedies, whilst lambasting “foreign, Western foods” as fashionable and of little nutritive or spiritual value. They insist that epicurean satiation violates the holistic and wholesome divine-ordained order of balanced Indian cuisine, and maintain that Indian culinary practices have been carried down pristinely for millennia.

They chastise Indian youth for gravitating toward Western and transcontinental cuisine, and instruct them to follow the traditional Indian diet, not realizing in the process that tradition is such a dynamic and vagrancy-prone entity that adapts and evolves bearing dents and imprints of wars, famines, trades, ties, assailants, plunders, invasions, conquests, colonization, policies and cultural exchange. Had for once they explored each component that sits on the Indian plate and palate, they wouldn’t have called “foreign” dishes unnatural and unsuitable for the Indian gastronomy.

When Christopher Columbus reached the Americas, the only “hot” flavor Europeans and most of the rest of the world knew was that of pepper. Upon encountering the Capsicum  genus, Columbus named it “pepper” because the closest description he could recall was it tasting like pepper. Hence the names chili peppers and bell peppers. The Conquistadors acquired it through the Mesoamericans, and via the Spaniards, it reached the Portuguese, who brought it to Goa toward the end of 15th century, as soon as Vasco da Gama found the maritime route to India. Black pepper was the second most precious spice, so expensive and valuable that harvesters were permitted to wear specially designed pocketless garments only, to prevent smuggling and sneaking. Chili’s apparent resemblance to pepper made it valuable, and led to the Portuguese seeking a tropical avenue for its cultivation.

Chilis are extremely important in Rajasthani cuisine. India has a wide variety of chilis – Kashmiri, Nepali, Naga, and so on, East to West. Ayurvedic publications are often found  enlisting the pros and cons of eating chilis, despite the fact that the compilation of the original Ayurvedic texts and references predates the introduction of the chili pepper in the subcontinent by at least a millennium. Indian food is often identified with chilis – spicy, savory and hot. It won’t be an overstatement to say that the condiment has become a synecdoche for Indian flavors – used as such by various companies to market their “Indian” flavors, most prominently FritoLay.

Further to this, Punjabis owe their staple makke-di-roti to the same Columbian exchange, as is the case with cashew, peanut (which is the source of the popular cooking oil), papaya and pineapple.

Most Indians would seldom credit South America, Spain or Portugal with their culinary heritage. It is kind of unthinkable to trace it back that far. Each ingredient of cuisine is a snapshot of history; rather each instance of an ingredient in a particular dish is. It is important to recognize how quickly we can get acclimatized, naturalized and oblivious to the origin of a foreign introduction, and assume it to be a natural part of our lives. In today’s partisan and divisive times, when political sentiment in India against all things (except perhaps investment and aid) external is at an all-time high, planners and policymakers can perhaps take a leaf out of the Indian cookbook.

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Pitamber Kaushik

Pitamber Kaushik is a columnist, an independent journalist, a writer, and an amateur researcher. His writing has appeared in more than 60 outlets in 30 countries.

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