A staple food for cultures across the globe, the tuber has emerged as a nutritional giant and the friend of peasants, rulers and sages. Even today, its possibilities are endless. The potato is the world’s fourth-most important crop after rice, wheat and maize, and it’s ranked first among non-grains.
The world’s leading potato producers today are China, India, Russia and Ukraine, respectively. In just a few centuries, what has made the potato so irresistible? Perhaps its unrivalled nutritional value, its relative easiness to cultivate, its ability to easily navigate wars and tax censuses due to its knack for hiding underground?
Despite these nations’ intimate and complicated relationships with potatoes, and how intertwined their societies and economies are with them, none can truly call them native. The humble potato was domesticated in the South American Andes some 8,000 years ago and was only brought to Europe in the mid-1500s, from where it spread west and northwards, back to the Americas, and beyond.
Potatoes contain nearly every important vitamin and nutrient, except vitamins A and D, making their life-supporting properties unrivalled by any other single crop. Keep their skin and add some dairy, which provides the two missing vitamins, and you have a healthy human diet staple. You even have 2g of protein for every 100g of potato. Farmers often prized potatoes because they provided an unmatched nutritional yield per hectare. “No crop produced more food per acre, demanded less cultivation and stored as easily as the potato,” wrote sociologist James Lang in his book Notes of a Potato Watcher.
In this regard, the potato is unrivalled. “The food produced by a field of potatoes is much superior to what is produced by a field of wheat,” wrote Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. “No food can afford a more decisive proof of its nourishing quality, or of its being peculiarly suitable to the health of the human constitution.”
With the worldwide versatility of potatoes, the possibilities are endless. That being said, what is your favourite potato dish?
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