Did you know that when potatoes were first introduced to France in the 1600s, the locals shunned the vegetable as poisonous because the wrinkled skin of the starchy spud was thought to resemble both the feet of lepers and the testicles of men?
Me neither. And I’m not sure I needed to. But I also don’t know why the Swiss thought the misshapen tuber caused scrofula, or why the Germans refused to eat the relief sacks full of them sent by Frederick the Great in 1774, despite the fact that it would have saved them from famine.
Whatever their reasons at the time, they were in fact right to be wary. Potatoes come from the nightshade family of plants, which as we all know includes varieties that are extremely toxic to humans. Raw potatoes can make you very ill indeed, as can potatoes affected by fungi or disease. You know that tiny, brittle green chip that you get in the bottom of every packet of Smith’s Cheese ‘n’ Onion? That green tinge indicates the presence of a toxin that can, in its worst form, smite you within 24 hours of consumption.
However, when they’re not killing you or masquerading as eighteenth century scrotal sacks, potatoes are an awesomely versatile foodstuff that have been popping up in cuisine from all over the world for centuries. 2008 was even named International Year of the Potato in honour of its importance in food security and poverty eradication, and its identity as a global food staple.
So here, in no particular order, are some of the tastier potatobased dishes from around the world, beginning with the adopted homeland of both the tuber and St Patrick himself.
Ireland: boxty dumplings
I only had one night in Dublin so, in the pursuit of the kind of hospitality for which Ireland is famed, I sought spuds and service at Gallagher’s Boxty House. I was rewarded with a waiter who neglected all his other charges in order to chatter away for twenty minutes to me about a long ago trip to Australia, and a plate of dumplings drowning in white sauce and chunks of tender, salty corned beef, which was in all essence the Irish version of gnocchi carbonara. Incidentally, the owner Pádraic Óg Gallagher holds the world record for the largest boxty dumpling ever, a behemoth of 82.5kg
Spain: tortilla de patatas
Kind of an omelette, kind of a quiche, but sexier than both because it’s Spanish. It’s also 11pm and you’re full of sangria, missed opportunities and not nearly enough food to remain vertical. To sober up all you need is potatoes, eggs, onions, salt and a decent-sized fry pan. Whip up your tortilla with a bit of late-night salsa music or some flamenco dancing and save yourself the hangover tomorrow.
Hailing from the Dauphin region of south-east France, this dish was first mentioned in 1788 after it was served at a dinner party by the duke of Clermont-Tonnerre. Growing up we called them scallop potatoes (not to be confused with potato scallops, which are in fact potato cakes and I don’t care what state you’re from), but that hardly matters because the whole thing is really just a potato bake with cream, onion, cheese and happiness. Perfect with cold Christmas ham and green salad.
Belgium: French fries
HA! You didn’t know I was going to do that, did you? French fries didn’t originate in the US of A at all, a fact the Belgians take VERY seriously. Some claim the French are responsible (hence the name), but spend a day in Antwerp trying all the different condiments produced solely for the native hot chip and you will know the snack’s true spiritual home. Fun fact: in the wake of 9/11 the White House was gagging for war and naturally expected the rest of the Western world to go with them. When France said ‘meh, we do not want to’ the American public were so incensed at their perceived cowardice that for a time French Fries were known as Freedom Fries.
Sometime in the nineteenth century the grandfather of Italian cuisine, Pellegrino Artusi, published a recipe for potato gnocchi which was prepared in exactly the same way that everyone from the homeliest Nonna to the fanciest 3-hat restaurant does today. The base ingredient can be made with all kinds of things depending on region, including flour, corn meal, semolina, pumpkin and ricotta, but it’s the potato variety that we all know and love, and the one that dear Pellegrino intended. Confusingly, in Venice gnocchi is known as macaroni.
Scotland: neeps and tatties
My first night in Edinburgh, my mate Tim took me out for dinner and impressed me by ordering haggis. He’d only lived there a couple of months and already he was eating like a local. I was game to try some (a hint of pâté with a sickly sweetness) and was doing fine until Tim leaned forward and whispered, with a certain devilish glee: ‘just don’t think about what it is’, and that was the end of my relationship with haggis. If you’re brave/foolish enough to try it, the traditional way is with neeps and tatties, or mashed potato and swede.
So these potato fritters have been sneaking onto hipster menus for a while, but I had no idea they came from the breakfast tables of the farmers of Bern. Rösti are cooked with the skin on, some purists insist on grating the potato a day in advance while chilled leads to a cleaner grate and less water in the potato when the time comes to fry it up. (Side note: add add fried onions and you get hash browns.)
If performance enhancing drugs were an omelette, they’d be called bauernfrühstück. Germany’s reputation for potato consumption is second only to their legendary beerdrinking skills. If you ever make it to Oktoberfest, consider bauernfrühstück the crutch that will keep you upright as you stumble from beerhall to tavern. Fried potatoes with scrambled egg and leek stirred through and your choice of chunky bacon or ham. Or both. Definitely both. They brew the beers big over there…
Central Europe: pierogi
After sampling a potato, chive and cheese pierogo for the first time I shook my fist and cursed both my grandmothers for having been so selfish; they were born in London and Melbourne you see. If they had have been Polish or Ukrainian, I would certainly have tasted these succulent dumplings long before I was 32. Also known as varenyky, if you want to give them a go in the NT head to Facebook and check out the Rush’n Hour food truck. You can thank me later.
Ireland: Colcannon potatoes
The Irish didn’t invent potatoes, but they certainly know what to do with them which is why they get two entries in this column. Also, because Colcannon are mashed potatoes with spring onion, cabbage, butter and bacon. Ireland wins.
Bahamas: boil fish
A simple stew of fish, potato, lime juice and some buttery herbs and spices, boil fish is a simple, local dish lauded as the perfect hangover cure all through the Caribbean. It’s not disimilar to the numus you can find in the Top End, but with warm, starchy veg and in place of the cool Asian flavours.
South America: chuño
From the chilly climes of Bolivia and Peru comes the chuño, a freeze-dried potato thingy that, when there’s a lot of them, look more like a mound of wombat droppings than I’d care to admit. Left outside for three days in sub-zero temperatures to freeze dry, the now preserved potatoes are stored for up to a decade and used to make soups, stews and other meals.
South/East Africa: potato and collard green stew
African food is amazing. It’s spicy, it’s fragrant, it’s hearty… But you will notice though that the further south you go, the sweeter it gets. I’m extremely fond of South Africa and her people, but by golly they put sugar in EVERYTHING. This meal is a gentler introduction to the sugar content of the local cuisine, packed full of raisins, cloves and cinnamon, with mustard, coriander and ginger to balance the flavours.
Sri Lanka: ala hodi
Boiled potatoes in a thick coconut milk with heaps of fenugreek, curry leaves and chilli, this curry can be as mild or spicy as you like, and is relatively simple for the beginner home cook. An excellent stodgy vego meal.
New Zealand: r wena par oa
Also known as Maori bread, this local sourdough uses potato yeast, rather than straight potatoes… You start with mashed potatoes, add flour and sugar and leave the mix to ferment. It’s called a starter, also known as a ‘bug’. Once it’s ready, mix it with flour and water like a regular bread and bake it.
Australia: potato cake/scallop
As we discussed earlier, Aussies feel very, very strongly about the name of their favourite cornershop snack, but I can tell you with a degree of authority that the best version in Darwin can be found at the Chippy, Dinah Beach Yacht Club. Deep fried to a dark, golden crisp and deliciously oily, without being soggy or greasy, and a soft, fluffy potato interior, it’s a total heartstopper. Get one. Do it now. (And it’s defo a potato cake.)
The word ‘vodka’ comes from the Russian ‘voda’ and Polish ‘woda’, both meaning ‘water’, which explains a lot about the drinkning habits of both countries. Vodka wasn’t that popular in the Western world until the 1940s after the Bolsheviks confiscated private distilleries in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Vodka distillers migrated and began peddling their wares all over the world. While you can get voddy from rye, rice, wheat and all sorts of things, it’s potatoes that got the ball rolling and make the smoothest vodkas today.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to get myself a pie floater and a side of potato gems. -SKJ