“No, no, potatoes have always been ours.”— Vegetable seller, Deshapriya Park, Kolkata, 2019.
When Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was ousted from Lucknow by the ambitions of Lord Dalhousie, governor general of British India, he had ruled just shy of nine years.Though he planned to continue on to London to plead his case with Queen Victoria, the last king of Oudh never made the trip due to a combination of a failed uprising in his home city by Begum Hazrat Mahal, who, as his second official wife, could be said to have been a warrior queen, and the outrage in England that the publicity of those events caused.
The nawab, though stripped of his lands, brought his traditional hospitality and lip-smacking, delicious specialties of his realm to Kolkata.
I can see food as a priority in a move.When I came over for my stay in Kolkata on economy British Airways tickets, tucked into my suitcase were packets of goodies from home – some American candy, chocolate, energy bars. Granted, when the nawab made his Kolkata journey in a steamer, the General McLeod, in May 1856, he had a retinue of 600 cooks, servers, and bearers. As many as 6,000 shopkeepers, tailors, moneylenders, and paanwallahs from Lucknow followed their king, too.
Without a retinue to call my own, nor ship, I admit it’s hard to see that the nawab and I travelled in any similar way at all. Except in this one thing: though I ended up giving most of my squirrelled-away food items to children of friends, taste and flavour were a tangible handclasp from the home I was leaving for a long while, and I made space for it in my luggage.
Though the nawab suffered betrayal, illness, accusations of mismanagement, greedy colonisers, eventual migration as a deposed king, and twenty-five months of imprisonment at Fort William, he initiated a new culinary era in Bengal, and a culinary specialty that was lasting.
When Wajid Ali Shah added potatoes to his biryani, some say to stretch his newly-constricted budget, others say for the novel new taste of potato, an iconic dish was born.
It’s hard to think of potatoes as revolutionary today, but at the time the tuber made an explosive impact. It remains a point of pride across Kolkata.
“You know,” a neighbour confides two days after I arrive, dropping her voice, “we have the potato in our biryani.” I nod with serious eyes. Yes, this is interesting.
I didn’t fully value this culinary history until much later.
The potato innovation took hold as it and other tastes of the nawab’s kitchen spread through the city. Men came to call at his home at Number Eleven Garden Reach in Metiabruz, a Kolkata neighbourhood built by Europeans along the Hooghly River, and were treated to delights never before experienced at home.The dishes combined the spices of India and the Persian use of nuts, raisins, and other dried fruits, saffron, musk, asafoetida, and more into a rich fusion.
The simple fare – dal, bhat, chorchori – in most Bengali homes paled in comparison to dishes set before visitors at Garden Reach, in addition to other delights such as music soirees, and the Lucknow gharana of kathak dancing with thumri. There were more than culinary tales to tell.
Not long after the arrival of the Awadhi king, the influence of his salons not only gave the men of Kolkata a taste of rich new cuisines to tease the palate, his tasty and foreign dishes led to second kitchens in many homes: one for the men learning about worldly entertainments and rich foods, and one for the rest of the household – mainly the women likely unwilling to test the limits of their digestions.
It’s hard to imagine Bengali food, or most regional foods across India, without potatoes today. No aloo posto? No South Indian masala dosai with potato filling?
Today, for most, potatoes are standard fare in India. But the story of its tardy arrival is noted at sacred places – at Jagannath Temple in Puri, for instance, not one potato is to be found in the food offered to the deity six times a day; nor has it been seen for over 500 years in the temple kitchens. The potato, as a culinary newcomer, is too foreign.
That potatoes were a harbinger of more than gastronomic delight is rather intriguing. Old homes dot the Kolkata cityscape even today with a room downstairs most typically used in its heyday by the men of the household of an evening in imitation of the nawab’s evening convivial delights. In one such room, I gaze at the walls, graced with forward-for-the-time paintings of women emerging from waterways after filling water jugs, and look again.Though they are fully clothed, naturally, in cotton saris, these are not typical paintings of women in early Bengal, an early wet T-shirt display made rather more elegant by restraint.
The New World tuber, now embedded in India, was a slow starter at first. Other food crops such as tomato, okra, chilli pepper, pineapple, papaya, and cashew nut that came to India in the sixteenth century as a direct result of the Columbian Exchange, so named for the every wither movement of food crops, ideas, diseases, and populations following the voyage to the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492, assimilated more quickly. Though mainstays today, the papaya and cashew followed the example of the potato and took more time to spread.
In fact, although the Portuguese had brought the potato to India’s western coast in the sixteenth century, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century after a British colonial push that it became known in places like Bengal. The Brits advanced certain crops to bring what they deemed “modern food” to the subject population as a symbol of progress, and to recreate a sense of belonging for the coloniser in the colony.
The potato, not limited by a slender stalk like wheat or rice, can grow to indefinite weight underground without falling over. Charles Mann says in How the Potato Changed the World that a Lebanese farmer dug up a potato in 2008 that weighed nearly 11 kilograms. It was bigger than his head.Tubers led, many say, to the end of famine in northern Europe, by underpinning the ability of peasants to withstand the requisitions of their grain crops by armies passing through.
Potatoes, with their ability to yield abundantly even outside of their native Andes, gave European peasants enough calories to avoid starvation, and may well have instigated worldwide population surges.
Potatoes overrode resistance and alarm to their novelty with the help of publications such as John Forster’s 1664 England’s Happiness Increased: A Sure and Easie Remedy Against All Succeeding Dear Years by a Plantation of the Roots Called Potatoes. Adam Smith in his 1776 treatise, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, claimed that should all labourers be fed a diet of potatoes, public happiness would increase.
And there was the juicy kernel: as an embodiment of happiness, the potato was a tool to justify the supposed moral right of the British to rule India. Underlying the lofty affirmation of happiness, however, colonisers banked on the fact that potatoes could cheaply feed labourers.
Tubers, it turns out, led the charge to empire, according to historian William H McNeill. “By feeding rapidly growing populations, [potatoes] permitted a handful of European nations to assert dominion over most of the world between 1750 and 1950.” In other words, the potato fuelled the rise of the West.
While today it is the fifth most eaten crop worldwide, after wheat, corn, rice, and sugar cane, it was startling and a bit scary in the eighteenth century – they were poisonous, they were an aphrodisiac, they were pig food, they were famine food, among other claims. Sir Frances Drake, in 1580, is said, falsely, to have introduced potatoes into England along with his other booty when he returned from his famous circumnavigation of the earth.
In 1853, a sculpture was erected in Offenburg, Germany, portraying the English explorer gazing into the horizon with his right hand resting on the hilt of his sword, his left hand gripping a potato plant. The plaque at the base of his feet said:
Sir Frances Drake,
disseminator of the potato in Europe
in theYear of Our Lord 1586.
Millions of people
who cultivate the earth
bless his immortal memory.
This questionable claim – no tuber would have survived his two-year journey home intact enough to spawn – was pulled down with the statue by Nazis in early 1939. But the aims of colonialism, as well as Enlightenment theories on happiness, held imaginations. The East India Company began to heavily promote the potato among Indian peasants.
Excerpted with permission from Chillies, Chhana & Rasa, Nina Mukerjee Furstenau, Aleph Book Company.