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Hullabaloo over humble aloo

- Scientists scoff at MPs’ claims over size

New Delhi, Dec. 6: A crop unknown to India 500 years ago featured in the Lok Sabha debate on foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail on Wednesday but, scientists say, fun seemed to trump facts during the tangential exchange on potatoes.

Congress leader Deepender Hooda pledged to deliver 2-kg or even 24-inch long potatoes in response to an Opposition leader’s claim that foreign food chains in India import potatoes to make French fries because the local produce isn’t good enough.

“I think both (leaders) would have been helped by lessons about potatoes,” said Suman Kumar Pandey, former director of the Central Potato Research Institute (CPRI) in Shimla, which has since the 1990s released potato varieties for chips and fries.

Pandey and other agriculture scientists say a 2-kg potato would be a “freak” and also point out that farmers in some central Indian states, including Gujarat, have for years been cultivating and supplying potatoes suitable for processing into French fries or chips.

“French fries or chips demand potatoes with special features,” said Pandey, who has spent nearly 40 years in potato research. “They need to be about eight inches long, have higher dry matter content, and contain low sugar levels.”

Potato sizes vary according to the variety, environmental conditions, and the nutrients available to the plants during growth. Pandey said the dry matter content of potatoes widely grown in the northern states is about 22 per cent, while food processing companies seek potatoes that have at least 24 per cent dry matter. The sugar levels of such potatoes intended for processing should be about 1 per cent rather than 2 per cent found in most potatoes.

“The higher the dry matter, the lower the absorption of oil,” Pandey told The Telegraph. “And the lower the sugar content, the better the appearance of fries or chips. High sugar turns them brown or dark brown, with low sugar they are white or yellow.”

Potatoes have adapted to Indian climatic conditions since their introduction into India during the early 17th century, said Joginder Singh Minhas, principal scientist at the Central Potato Research Station in Jalandhar.

The Portuguese brought potatoes to India’s west coast where they are still called batatas, while British traders independently brought them into Bihar and Bengal, according to B.D. Sharma, a potato researcher who has documented the history of potatoes in the country.

The earliest potatoes brought into India have given way to new varieties generated through breeding efforts. Scientists at the CPRI have since the 1950s released nearly 50 varieties of potatoes through breeding and selection for commercial cultivation, said Minhas. Only two years ago, Indian scientists released a variety called Kufri Fry Sona, a potato especially bred to end up in French fries or chips.

Potato researchers say while giant potatoes have been documented in history, they are considered “freak events”. “There is an international report of a potato that grew to 3 kg," Minhas said. The largest potatoes observed in India, said Pandey, are about 800 grams.