A corner stand in my mother’s kitchen bore two wicker baskets: one for onions, and the other, for potatoes. The potatoes, hardly a staple in our cooking, made an appearance now and then. They’d tumble into palyas snuck between folds of crispy dosas or stand guard to a simple meal; into bondas during festivals; and on occasion, into paranthas, courtesy Amma’s cookery club classes.
In the summers, they showed up, primly cubed and spiced, in a curd-based bajji. But outside the precincts of our home, summers also meant they’d be hauled in by the gunny bags from our neighbour’s farm in a little village on the outskirts of Bangalore, cut paper-thin in the stainless steel slicer, salted and sun-dried. They’d be filled into tin boxes and stored for later use, on rainy days, and in the winter: to be deep-fried and eaten by the fistfuls, with nary a care for table manners.
So, in a nutshell, potatoes would penetrate the very air we breathed, in the summers. We walked around with potato-scented hair and potato-wafer smiles, as if the world was ours. But we, the Humpty Dumpties of Karnataka, hadn’t yet known the madness of the potato heads of Bengal.
A Fascination For Potatoes
Which is why, when I married into a Bengali family, I realised just how paltry my fascination for potatoes was. I’ve never witnessed a greater love for the spud in my life, than in my husband’s family. I can’t think of a single day that potatoes haven’t been on the table, in some form or the other, notwithstanding the turns of seasons or reasons.
Festival? Luchi and aloor dom at your service. Need a post-festival cure for the overworked tummy? Khichuri with aloo bhaja to the rescue. Having guests over? Aloo posto to perk up the platter. Too hot, cold, or generally bored in life? Aloo sheddo to enliven your spirits.
As you can see, potatoes, in the Bengali household, are for keeps. You’ll never find a Bengali cook in a conundrum when it comes to aloo.
You won’t ever have to help a Bengali assuage their guilt about an aloo overdose. Aloo is meant for overdoing; it is the pride and gold of the Bongs, who sing paeans unto its starchy glory.
And so, I, with my Kannadiga genes and Bengali keenness (not to forget the acquired American temperament) present the panacea for my daughter’s sullen summer soul: mashed potato.
Boiled to a just-so tenderness, the golden mound, spiked with red chilies fried and crushed in a generous drizzle of mustard oil, is the lone star on her weekday plate. The spice cuts right into its buttery bite, and my secret ingredient keeps her smiling (and guessing) for hours after she’s eaten it with rice and ghee, and called it bae.
(I use that time wisely, and catch my forty winks.)
- 4 medium potatoes, boiled, de-skinned and mashed
- 1 tablespoon mustard oil
- 2 red chillies
- ¼ teaspoon Kalonji/ Nigella seeds
- ¼ teaspoon turmeric
- Salt to taste
- 1 teaspoon brown sugar/ jaggery powder + roasted jeera powder
- Heat mustard oil in a pan, add the chillies, fry until they’re crisp, on a low flame.
- Add Kalonji, turmeric, turn off heat.
- When this tempering is cool enough to handle, scoop out the red chillies, and crush them with your hands.
- Pour the oil on the mashed potatoes, add the crushed red chillies, salt and brown sugar/ jaggery powder + roasted jeera powder, mix thoroughly.
- Serve hot, with rice (and ghee).
(Ranjini is a teacher by day and writer by night. She writes exclusively on food and culture, and in this series, she will share little snippets and insights from her culturally mixed kitchen, which have helped mould her into a multitasking head-hasher, who can whip up anything from Akki Rotti (thanks to her South Indian genes) to Dhokar Dalna (using part toor-dal, no less, thanks to her Bengali in-law inheritance) at a moment's calling.)
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