Food & Drink

Potatoes - stuffed, roasted, pan-fried and piled on buns - star in Indian cooking

Dosa Potatoes With Lime and Ketchup. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post.
Dosa Potatoes With Lime and Ketchup. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post.
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Whenever I think of my Aunt Rachna, I imagine her making aloo paratha, a fluffy, savory Indian bread stuffed to the brim with potatoes.

In her big, open kitchen in Dallas, she tosses a few rough-edged russets into a pot of boiling water, and as soon as the potatoes are soft enough to be easily pierced with a fork, she plucks them out, peels them and mashes them in a bowl until they’re smooth and satiny, mixing in salt, red chile powder and crushed fennel seeds, which fill the room with a heady, sweet aroma. She divides them into baseball-size spheres and then, in a separate bowl, combines wheat flour, oil and water to make small circles of dough. The next step is like magic: She encloses one of the enormous potato balls into a disc of dough, like a parcel, rolls it all out, and the two become one - a paper-thin layer of dough outlining a bulky, piquant layer of potatoes. She quickly pan-fries the parathas, basting them with oil until they are blistered and glistening, and sets them on a plate, ready for me to devour while they’re still steaming.

Many aloo parathas are mostly dough, with just a small amount of potato. But Rachna always taught me that this ratio should be flipped. The potato is the delivery vehicle for most of the flavor. Without it, the paratha is less exciting.

Growing up in an Indian vegetarian household, I deeply understood the power of the potato. And it wasn’t just because of Rachna’s lush aloo parathas. Potatoes figure heavily in many aspects of Indian cuisine and have always been a staple of my family’s meals - boiled, baked, pan-fried, smashed and anything in between. My mom’s go-to weeknight dish is aloo gobhi: roasted, charred potatoes and cauliflower coated in turmeric, ginger and onions. Her preferred appetizer for entertaining is baked miniature potatoes topped with sour cream and a tangy and bright combination of chaat masala, cilantro, onions, ginger and green chiles. My Aunt Sonia is famous in our family for her pav bhaji, an ingeniously comforting carb-on-carb Mumbai street food featuring buttered buns topped with a spicy, coriander-heavy mashed potato gravy. When I was writing my cookbook, “Indian-ish,” potatoes were such a recurring star in my recipes that I considered dedicating an entire chapter to them.

There are many ingredients and dishes, now considered staples of Indian cuisine, that actually came from abroad. Tea came to India by way of the British, samosas showed up from the Middle East, and kidney beans (also known as rajma) arrived via Latin America. Potatoes have a similar story. Landing in India around the 17th century by way of European colonizers, potatoes were soon cultivated throughout the country. It made sense: They were a perfect blank canvas for the vast array of spices and appealed as a filling main course for the large vegetarian population. Now India is one of the biggest potato growers in the world.

To my mom, a working parent, potatoes were - and continue to be - her bread and butter for putting together a quick meal. There’s her simple, flavorful sabzi of crunchy bell peppers and potatoes cooked in a sweet, smoky pairing of cumin and fennel seeds, topped with lime juice and crushed peanuts. My mom fasts on Tuesdays to honor her parents’ memory, and for her, fasting means not eating salt (there isn’t a significance to abstaining from salt; it’s just what her mother did). For dinner, she’ll dress chopped, boiled potatoes simply with olive oil and red chile powder. I often re-create a version of this dish at my apartment in Brooklyn, though I always add chaat masala, for its funky, complex flavor.

But my all-time favorite preparation of potatoes in Indian cuisine is the smashed, spiced potatoes found inside a masala dosa, a tangy, savory crepe that’s a signature of southern Indian cuisine. I love the earthy pops of mustard seeds, the crackle of the curry leaves amid the velvety potatoes and the creeping heat from the green chiles. The potatoes are my mom’s preferred element of the masala dosa, too, so for my cookbook, she wrote a recipe just for the filling.

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The first time I tried her take, I loved it as is - but with my book being Indian-ish I couldn’t help but suggest an addition: a squiggle of ketchup. If there’s anything I have learned being raised in the United States and eating more than my fair share of fries, it’s that ketchup always has a place atop a potato, no matter its preparation.

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