Samui Wining & Dining
Knowing Your Onions

Or, in this case, knowing your potatoes

 

20We just love them! No matter how they’re prepared. Boiled, fried, baked, sautéed, roasted, pureed or mashed, with added ingredients like onion, cheese, cream, mustard and a host of herbs, and best of all for many – as chips! That’s French fries to just about everyone except the Brits – chips for most people are what Brits call crisps. But that’s just semantics; the potato has become a firm favourite in the Western world in all of its forms. And fast food chains have ensured that virtually everyone on the planet knows what French fries are – though the actual amount of potato in them is questionable!

    Potatoes have traveled all the way from the windswept Andes Mountains of South America. An austere region with fluctuating temperatures and poor soil conditions, the tough and durable potato evolved in its thin air, climbing ever higher – like the people who first settled there. It’s believed pre-Columbian farmers first discovered and cultivated the potato some 7,000 years ago. As they climbed higher into the hills they found that it became too cold to grow maize, and so turned to the potato. But it wouldn’t be until the 16th century, when the Conquistadors tramped through Peru that Europeans would come across them and send them back home. From there they spread across Africa, Asia and North America. And while they grow best in cool climates with good rainfall or irrigation, they are found in less hospitable conditions. Most notably you’ll see them flourishing in China’s southwest highlands, the Indo-Gangetic plains of India, the equatorial highlands of Java and in the north and northeast of Thailand.

      Their name stems from the Spanish word batata meaning sweet-potato, though the potato has only a very distant relationship with the sweet-potato. Columbus had brought them back from the Caribbean years previously but because the edible part of both crops is an underground organ (a root in the case of the sweet-potato), they have often been confused. In Spain, the potato is now called the ‘patata’ and several languages refer to it as an ‘earth-apple’, such as French, Dutch and Hebrew. There are also a number of colloquialisms for potatoes with ‘spud’ being common in English. The exact origin of this term is unclear but it may refer to a ‘spudder’, a shovel-like tool used to harvest potatoes, or to a wooden barrel that sorters would put small potatoes into when looking for larger ones.

 

Their name stems from the Spanish word
batata meaning sweet-potato, though the
potato has only a very distant relationship
with the sweet-potato.

      

 According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the worldwide production of potatoes in 2005 was 322 million metric tons. China produced the most with 73 million metric tonnes followed by Russia (36mmt), India (25mmt), Ukraine (19mmt), and the United States (19mmt) making up the top five. It is the fifth highest production crop in the world and the planet’s most widely grown tuber crop. From an original few hundred varieties there are now more than 12,000 including cross-breeds and hybrids. In the UK the most popular varieties include: Maris Piper – a good general purpose potato, though not suitable for salads, it’s a favourite in chip shops; King Edward’s – best for roasting; Desiree – a red-skinned main-crop potato originally bred in the Netherlands, it’s a favourite in allotments because of its resistance to disease and drought; Golden Wonder – the famous Scottish potato, great for frying and used to make crisps; Kerr’s Pink – another Scottish potato, excellent for boiling; and Pink Fir Apple – a pink-skinned salad potato which grows in irregular shapes. If you remember the old television show ‘That’s Life’ with Esther Ranzen, you’ll no doubt recall the great delight they took in showing all the odd shaped potatoes people sent in. Usually they were of a phallic nature, which was incredibly embarrassing for young boys watching, but did make one’s sisters titter.

       In 1845 and 1846, a famine caused by potato blight in Ireland and other areas of northern Europe had an enormous social and political impact. However, it also led to an increase in effort by small farmers to develop new varieties resistant to disease. In the USA, the first really early potato varieties were developed in the 1860s. And in Scotland a seed potato industry sprang up, predominately because the climate kept the aphid vector of virus disease down to low levels. About 70% of all British varieties were developed in Scotland and there is a persistent story that the first items ever shown by The Royal Horticultural Society were potatoes. There was a point in 1903 when new varieties were seen as being so valuable that small initial samples were sold for their weight in gold. And home-grown potatoes were extraordinarily important during the two World Wars in supplying the population with basic food requirements. Careful planning of home agriculture, particularly with regard to potato growing, was a feature of Britain’s strategy for survival which is seldom given the recognition it deserves.

       In terms of nutrition, potatoes have a high, complex carbohydrate content and include protein, minerals and vitamins. Freshly harvested they retain more vitamin C than stored potatoes. While they can be composed of up to 80% water, they are known to have a high Glycemic index, a disqualifying factor in many diets. They are, however, cholesterol-free and 99% fat-free. In addition to the many ways of preparing potatoes some adventurous chefs have managed to create ice-cream dishes based on potatoes and, of course, the Poles and Russians are famous for producing highly potent vodkas from the humble tuber. In Thailand, you’ll find potatoes in the ever-popular masaman curries, although you’ll rarely see Thai people eat potatoes. Crisps, or potato chips, in Thailand are produced from domestically grown potatoes (except imported brands such as Pringles) with all the seeds imported, around 10,000 tons, from the USA, Australia, Scotland and Canada.

       Today, the potato is so common, plentiful and pervasive in the Western diet that we can take it for granted. It’s only been with us a few hundred years and for some time was perceived as the food of the underclasses. Now we can’t get enough of them. While you are here on Samui you may well mostly eat Thai food, but wait until you get back home. It will be one of the first things into your shopping basket, no matter their shape – or yours!

 

Johnny Paterson


 


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