Sat, Sep 02, 2017 - Page 13 News List

Ian’s Table: Be it ever so humble

It is the simplest of root vegetables, but the potato is also one of the most useful and can be put to a multitude of uses

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing Reporter

Nothing is simpler or more satisfying that a roast chicken with a side of roast potatoes.

Photo: Ian Bartholomew

In western cuisine, few things are as fundamental as the potato. But here in Asia, the potato doesn’t have the same kind of stature as it does in Europe and America and this can be frustrating for the potato lover. Despite the fact that there are said to be upward of 3,000 varieties of potatoes, and any Western text dealing with the culinary uses of potatoes might list 10 or so varieties that the author has easy access to, the sad fact in Taiwan is that a potato is pretty much just a potato, and little distinction is made between varieties, so that it is often difficult to know when purchasing local potatoes exactly what you are getting.

And the simple fact is that a potato is absolutely not just a potato. It is a vegetable that has an ancient history, with evidence of cultivation dating back more than 5,000 years. It originated in South America and was a relatively late arrival on the European culinary scene. Not only that, it had a particularly hard time getting established, which is ironic given how it is such a popular favorite today. It is now one of the top five crops grown in terms of world production, and can be found around the world, often playing an important part in local cuisines.

Brought back from the New World by the Spanish forces of Jimenez de Quesada in 1537, the potato became a small if not particularly popular crop in Spain and Italy, and gradually spread throughout Europe. In the early days before careful hybridization, the potato was small and had a tendency to bitterness.

Indeed, according to Alan Davidson in The Oxford Companion to Food, the new legume was regarded with such suspicion by the Catholic Irish, for whom it eventually became a staple crop, that seed potatoes were often sprinkled with holy water and planted on Good Friday to dispel their heretical nature (the fear was that potatoes were not mentioned in the Bible, a book not known for its culinary sopust histication). It did not help that portions of the potato plant, and the potato itself if not properly stored, is toxic and can lead to physical discomfort when ingested.

Much of the success in promoting the potato was given to a Frenchman, Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, an army pharmacist in the latter half of the 18th century and a fascinating figure in the history of food and nutrition. He saw the potato as an excellent source of food for starving European peasants and engaged in a wide range of amusing stunts which ultimately led to the French nobility and general populous accepting the potato for what it is: one of the greatest foodstuffs in all of nature’s bounty.

Parmentier’s name is forever associated with the potato through the classic French dish Hachis Parmentier, a dish of baked potato and diced meat that might be considered a Gallic version of the English shepard’s pie.

As it spread through Europe, the potato diversified into a huge variety of cultivars, each suited to different culinary uses. Fortunately matters can be simplified, cutting through the tangle of Desiree, Jersey Royal, Maris Piper, Pentland Crown, Nicola, Yukon Gold and a bewildering array of equally strange and seemingly random names.

MEALY AND WAXY

At its simplest, potatoes can be divided between those that are more mealy and those that are more waxy. Mealy potatoes are generally regarded as better for mashing but unsuitable for boiling, tending to fall apart before they are cooked, while waxy potatoes hold their shape better, and are ideal for various European dishes such as the French gratin dauphinois or German potato salad.

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