Get thee behind me, shaitaan McAloo! Wretched firang lurking in my golden pile of french fries, seducing me into betraying our jai kisans. Or so claims Sushma Swaraj who informed the Parliament of a national tragedy in the making: “The farmers of Agra produce the highest potatoes, they are forced to throw them on the road but McDonald’s does not buy potatoes from them. From where do they get potatoes? Airplanes full of potatoes are imported from abroad.”
It’s the new American WMD: the spud missile. Cowing us into submission in a hail of crispy temptation.
As it turns out, most of our McAloos are grown in Gujarat, an unappetising truth gleefully flourished by Congress honcho Deepinder Hooda. “Once the potatoes are harvested, maybe for my friends from BJP, they become American,” he exclaimed. Surely, Sushmaji cannot be impugning the patriotism of potatoes grown in the land of milk and Modi.
But a quick stroll through history reveals that Swaraj is entirely right in flagging the antecedents of this tuberous intruder. The humble potato is indeed a phoren import, brought to our land by waves of invaders, first the Portugese in Goa and then the angrez in Bengal. It is the great conquistadore of vegetables which over the course of four centuries has come to colonise the world. Since the dying Incans gifted the tuber to the invading Spaniards, it has spread across borders like a global pandemic; its delectable tentacles penetrating every local cuisine from Shanghai to Capetown. We are all carb-junkies now, yearning for our next hit of starch.
As our leader of the Opposition suspects, the mousy potato is the ultimate foreign agent — listen up, Mata Hari! — infiltrating our palates with stealth and ease, armed with its two mighty assets. The first is its unparalleled ability to go native. No other vegetable has blended so effortlessly with the locals, mating with baingans, gajars, and gobis alike, folding itself into the eager arms of parathas, samosas and masala dosas, cavorting with curries, be it saag, chicken or keema. No one can resist its charms from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. So familiar and beloved is the tuber that we have rechristened it in our mother tongue. Batata, aloo, urulai-kizhangu, a potato by any other name…
Its other great talent is of instant seduction. Just ask any mother belabouring to persuade her child to eat its greens. One bite of a samosa or even the lowly aloo sabzi and the rest of the vegetables pale in comparison. Children are merely more candid than grown-ups who feel politely compelled to sing praises of the spinach or the brinjal. But none inspire in us the aching desire of the potato whom we crave in our lowest moments. There is no misery that cannot be dulled by a big bag of chips or hearty stew…. Or a shot of vodka.
Ah, can any other vegetable claim to nourish and intoxicate us, as well?
“The very general use which is made of potatoes in these kingdoms as food for man is a convincing proof that the prejudices of a nation, with regard to diet, however deeply rooted, are by no means unconquerable,” observed the father of the free market economics, Adam Smith. Forget Wal-Mart. There is no more powerful weapon of globalisation than the potato — or more dangerous.
Conquered we are by a spud that — while nutritious — is seducing us into excess, as we pile on the calories and the paunch. A Harvard University study found that the “Public Enemy No. 1 in America’s battle of the bulge isn’t cupcakes, soda or double bacon cheeseburgers” but the potato. According to researchers, “Daily consumption of an extra serving of spuds — French fries, crispy chips, mashed with butter and garlic, or simply boiled or baked — was found to cause more weight gain than downing an additional 12-ounce can of a sugary drink or taking an extra helping of red or processed meats.”
Ouch! What fate then awaits a nation in thrall of the aloo. Fat we are doomed to be whether those potatoes are Gujarati or Idaho.
The only ones laughing are those vanquished Incans. Revenge is a dish best served fried.