Food profile: The potato

Potato was always an important ingredient in many cuisines…but what makes, if not made, it so special?

The last article you read by me was about the garlic clove itself, a great ingredient with many medicinal and culinary properties to it. I thought I would try and continue another food profile type of article, but this time about the famous potato. What makes it so special to so many cuisines? Where does it come from? What is it? What properties and nutrients does it contain? I will be trying to tackle these specific questions closely in this research article. I hope you like this, and any constructive comments as usual are welcome.

Ahhhhh, the good old potato. Peel the skin, cut it, boil it, put it in the oven and you got yourself some roast potatoes. Steam it and you got steamed potatoes for a healthy diet. Fry it with pork spare ribs, chili and spring onions to make Chinese meat gravy with rice. Mash it and you got potato mash or purée. Mash it, put it with egg and flour and you got potato gnocchi. Fry it again with some cheese, spring onions and lemon juice and you got polpettes or Greek potato cakes. Deep fry it and you got your famous French fries (there are question marks over its origins as we shall find out later). Fry it again and add it to your favourite meat or vegetable stew. Without hesitation, I think you understand me by now, it is a very versatile ingredient that you can almost add into any dish you like. But like the garlic, let us put the potato in focus with its origins, properties and some interesting facts here and there.

Once upon a time…alright, let’s talk about the history of the potato itself. I think what is the most surprising thing is that a lot of people perceive that since the potato is found and used extensively throughout Britain and Europe, the origins of it must lie somewhere within Europe. In fact, the potato dates back to 8,000 years ago, in the Peruvian heights of the Andes, in the Western part of South America. [2] Also, there is not only the potato which has a yellow interior and a muddy exterior, that we normally find in any local supermarket. There are, believe or not, 1,000 different varieties of the produce itself. [2] Then, an important question arises, how to connect the potato back to Europe then? As you may know, the Spanish conquistadors, like their Portuguese counterparts set sail all over America, Asia and Africa, as pioneers of the imperial trade and business. They were both there to find riches for their respective monarchs and bring prestige back to the European political domain. Apart from the gold, incredible riches and artifacts found across North, Central and South America (with three main tribes starting from the Aztecs in Mexico, through to Honduras and its neighbouring countries like Nicaragua with the Mayans, through to the Incas in Peru), the Spanish colonists and merchants managed to bring home potatoes throughout the 16th century and beyond in Europe, where they called this specimen the ‘patata’, deriving from the Mesoamerican word ‘batata’. [2]

Now that we are done with some introduction of the potato itself, let us look at some interesting points about it:

1) Popularity in France 
Of course, many French people would tell you that the French medical officer Antoine-Augustine Parmentier made the potato famous. Unluckily for the old chap, during the Seven Years’ War (1759-63), he was imprisoned and given rations of potatoes for punishment in Prussia. Although the French Parliament had originally banned the consumption of potatoes, Parmentier and the famine finally convinced the French government and population the potato was indeed fit to eat. [2]

2) The ‘French’ fries – the myth
There are three main possibilities of how the origins of the ‘French’ fries came about:

  • During the exposure of Parmentier’s potato dishes, he served it to many important personnels in France at that time, namely King Louis XVI, Queen Marie-Antoinette, American ambassadors and politicians Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. With the two Americans eating this delicacy, they formally recognised this as the ‘French’ fries. [2, 3]
  • There are two sides to another appellation, whether it is eligible to be ‘French’ or in fact ‘Belgian’. On one hand, the Belgians are normally thought to make fries themselves, whilst on the other hand, argues both nations were making their own versions of the fries itself. [2, 3]
  • During the War of the Austrian Succession in 1859, where Italy (comprised primarily by the Sardinian army) was liberated of Austrian rule in the northern states of Lombardy and Piedmont by French aid, it is also possible that the Belgians served fries to the French soldiers, spreading across France through time. Or indeed, it could be plausible to believe that the Belgians were influenced by the French preparations of the potato snack. [2, 3, 4]

3) The Crisp 
Some people prefer calling it the ‘crisp’, whereas others the ‘chip’. In 1853, the American railway worker Commodore Vanderbilt sent a sample of his potatoes to a particular restaurant in Saratoga Springs, USA. His idea was rejected as too thick by one of the restaurant’s chefs, George Crum. Vanderbilt, therefore sliced them very thin and fried the potatoes in oil, serving them with a pinch of salt and gave them back to the restaurant. This time, however, Vanderbilt successfully made this crisp or the “Saratoga Crunch Chips” famous throughout the area and beyond! [2]

4) Nutritional facts  
No, the potato is not only a big blob of carbohydrates and energy you consume primarily with your meat gravy dishes. It also has very important nutrients when eating them:

  • High in fibre with the skin in tact
  • High in minerals (calcium, magnesium, potassium)
  • Low in fat
  • Low in cholestoral
  • Low in calories [5]
Right, so we have a list of the advantages of eating potatoes, but I thought it would be suitable for us to understand the benefits of eating foods with the aforementioned nutrients.

  • Fibre
Helps to loosen the digestive system, avoiding constipation
Absorb nutrients and process the food in the digestive system
Lower blood cholesterol
Makes you have the perception of being fuller, controlling your meal consumption. [6]
  • Calcium 

To strengthen our teeth and bones
Reduce the chances of osteoporosis – a bone disease where the chances of bone fractures are significantly increased). [7]

  • Magnesium 
     This particular type of mineral helps the digestion and absorption of different nutrients and foods
Helps make the brain and muscles in our bodies function properly [7]
  • Potassium 

Helps maintain body fluids [7]

  • Fat (in calories)
Fats are primarily to protect internal organs with an ‘outer layer’.
It can also improve flavour in foods, making them richer in texture as well
It aids membrane structure [8]
  • Cholesterol 
Cholesterol is very important in the human body, especially as it helps it function properly with many properties.
Can help with membrane structure around every cell in body
Make hormones
Carry chemical signals around body [9]
Effectively, the potato is an ancient and diverse ingredient that was originally discovered by the Incans in Peru, and spread throughout Europe by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. [2] It is and was a very versatile and an eventual popular ingredient in European cuisine, was shown through the debates over the origin of the French fries, whether the French or Belgian influenced, and Vandervilt, the American railway manager, inventing the crisp or the “Saratoga Crunch Chips”. [2] The potato itself has many nutrients that were not too obvious at first, namely the minerals calcium, magnesium and potassium, each of them essential in our diets to help the body function properly in various ways.

That’s a wrap! I’m off to make some potato purée to celebrate the potato!
Nah, that’s me done and I hope you liked your read and I will come back soon with another article, so stay tuned! 🙂

References 
[1] http://eatseasonably.co.uk/images/uploads/cache/potatoes-352×308.jpg
[2] http://www.lovepotatoes.co.uk/the-potato/history-of-potatoes/
[3] http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2010/09/the-history-of-french-fries/
[4] http://www.onwar.com/aced/data/india/italy1859.htm
[5] http://www.lovepotatoes.co.uk/the-potato/potato-nutrition/
[6] http://www.netdoctor.co.uk/focus/nutrition/facts/lifestylemanagement/fibre.htm
[7] http://www.wellbeing-nutrition.com/nutrition.htm
[8] http://www.bbc.co.uk/health/treatments/healthy_living/nutrition/healthy_fatsugar.shtml
[9] http://www.bbc.co.uk/health/physical_health/conditions/cholesterol1.shtml

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