Potato masala: A dish from the hills of Kodaikanal

The school in which I studied, Presentation Convent in Kodaikanal, used to organise retreats for three days. This retreat was all about self-isolation and silence. There were only a total of 200 students in the school that’s run by English and Irish nuns. Most of the students were either from England or Parsis from Mumbai.
Potato masala: A dish from the hills of Kodaikanal

Chennai

There were only a few Indians, which included Vasundhara Raje, Rima Kapoor, Meera Alaganan and myself.
For me, the boarding life was like living a page out of the famous Enid Blyton novels, Malory Towers or St Clare’s. Till today, I think no children’s author has matched her skills — those vivid, imaginative and creative masterminds.
Today’s isolation reminded me of school retreat and my memory floated back to sitting on the grassy bank, on top of the hill with friends, Meera and Rita Mehta. Those three days were stolen moments of shared secrets, whispered confidences and midnight feasts in the library below our dorm. The English girls were always hungry and could eat like a horse and befriended anyone who had a great variety of snacks stored in the tuck shop. Ragging was common and I was a target. Coming from a middle-class South Indian family, I was not familiar with their mannerisms. I loved my teachers, especially Sister Magdalene who brought Geography and Health Science alive in the classroom. I was the only one served vegetarian food in the whole school. On Tuesdays, it was mulligatawny and rice, which was everyone’s favourite.
There were only 10 students in a class and everyone took turns helping with the school bakery, where the most delicious bread, buns and eclairs were baked. From ballet classes, drama, hockey, netball, walks to the lake and visits to the American school to witness their plays, school life was indeed exciting. Friday lunch was the most looked forward to — it was a south Indian Potato dish served with pooris and had every student waiting for it.
A little was smuggled away and brought down to the library at midnight, where we had our midnight feast by lighting candles and each one contributed from the goodies they collected at the tuck shop. The tuck shop hoarded everyone’s goodies and opened between 4 and 5 in the evening. The royal fare from Rajasthan, English cookies, Parsi chivda and Rima’s contribution from the Kapoor khandan rubbed shoulders with my humble murukus and seedai. Meera always contributed banana chips and halwa.
The best part of it was the stolen pooris and potato masala, which one never got tired of. It was an old cook, Parvathi amma, who had introduced the potato dish in the school kitchen.
It is hard to believe that potatoes came to India only in the early 17th century when the Portuguese cultivated it along the western coast. Initially, potato met with a fair bit of resistance as it was seen as ‘foreign’ produce but later became a household name. Kodai hills were ideal for its growth and in our cottage itself, we had over an acre of potatoes growing. The first mention of potato in Indian history was that of Edward Terry’s voyage account of the banquet at Ajmer, given by Asaph Khan to Sir Thomas Roe, the British Ambassador in 1675. Fryer’s travel records (1671-1675) described the gardens of Surat and Karnataka as growing potatoes. Today, I have recreated the potato dish for you to try and make.
— Chef Ramaa Shanker is the author of ‘Festive Offerings to the Gods: Divine Soul Recipes’
Preparation time: 20 min
Cooking time: 20 min
Serves: 4 pax
Calories per serving: 390
INGREDIENTS:
Potatoes cubes: 3 big | Shallots:
1 cup peeled | Red onions: 1 cut
fine | Tomatoes: 2 cut fine | Green
chillies: 3 slits lengthwise | Ginger:
1 tsp julienne | Garlic: 1 tsp peeled
and chopped lengthwise | Ginger
garlic paste:½ tsp | Red chillies:
4 | Dry coriander: 1 tsp | Grated
coconut: ½ cup | Fenugreek: ¼
tsp | Cumin: 1 tsp | Black pepper:
1 tsp | Cloves 2, cinnamon 1,
fennel seeds-½ tsp, cardamom 2,
black cardamom 1, star anise 1,
cashew nuts 5 | Coconut oil/ oil of
choice: ¼ cup | Green coriander: 1
bunch chopped fine | Fresh mint:
few strands chopped fine | Curry
leaves: 1 tbsp | Salt: to taste |
Yogurt: 1 tbsp | Turmeric powder:
1 tsp.
METHOD
  • Take a mud /clay pot or a heavy bottom saucepan. Heat one 1 tsp oil on the fire. On low heat, fry the dry ingredients like coriander and red chillies and add cloves, cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, fenugreek, cumin, black pepper and cashew nuts. When all is well roasted, remove from fire, cool and grind
  • Grind coconut with fresh coriander and mint leaves and keep aside. 
  • Pour 1 tbsp oil in the pan and fry the onions and shallots till light brown. Add the julienne ginger and cut garlic and saute for 2 mins.
  • Add ginger-garlic paste and saute till cooked.
  • Add one more tsp oil and add the tomatoes. Saute till mushy, add the ground coconut masala and stir for 4 min.
  • Now add the rest of the ground masala and stir till it leaves the sides.
  • Add the yogurt and stir. Make sure yogurt is well mixed.
  • Add turmeric and salt.
  • Now add the potato cubes and cook covered till done. Serve hot.

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