Opinion: The curious case of the Chinese potato
- This winter tuber traces its origins back to Central and East Africa
- Despite its muddy skin and dense texture, it can be cooked into different stir-fries
It is koorka season. Koorka in Malayalam, sirukizhangu in Tamil, sambrani gadde in Kannada, kook in Konkani, this winter tuber is available until the end of February. It’s much smaller in size than the potato. Given the thick layer of mud around its hairy skin, you can be sure it is not going to garner too many “likes" on Instagram. Fun fact: It’s known as Chinese potato—but it’s neither Chinese nor a potato.
Its origins can be traced back to Central and East Africa, from where it migrated to India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia. It is no longer commonly found in Africa though. In India, Chinese potatoes are used in dishes mainly in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and the Konkan belt. It may not be so well-known in other parts of the country.
Koorka has a strange medicinal scent when it’s being cooked. This may be why it is called sambrani (meaning incense) gadde in Kannada. Chinese potatoes, unlike regular potatoes, come from the mint family, not the nightshade family. That explains the herbaceous aroma during cooking. The texture, on cooking, is more dense than the potato, the peel much thicker, almost similar to colocasia (arbi).
Its availability around Pongal (Sankranti) makes it part of the festive meal that puts to use everything newly harvested. A mix of Chinese potatoes, plantains and sweet potato prepared into a dry curry with a liberal sprinkling of coconut forms part of the Pongal spread at home.
As a child, the odd flavour of koorka did not appeal to my taste buds. “What’s wrong with regular potatoes and why is this strange-tasting thing on my plate?" I would whine. Today, however, the food writer in me goes in search of seasonal and somewhat unusual vegetables with the I-will-try-anything-once mindset.
A Google search for koorka recipes leads to a number of food blogs highlighting the cuisine of Kerala. Dry curries like mezhukkupuratti (the recipe is as simple as the pronunciation is complicated), upperi and thoran are some of the ways koorka is prepared in the state. It is also cooked with pork.
Digging into botanical websites for more information on this tuber reveals that its leaves are edible, and are even used in traditional medicine. But the vegetable can be difficult to digest so it is best eaten in smaller quantities.
The one impediment to cooking this root vegetable is dealing with the muddy skin. It is such a common problem that there are several YouTube videos explaining how to go about it. Many of them recommend putting koorka in a gunny bag, or rolling it up in a fresh duster cloth and beating the hell out of it on the floor, or any hard surface. Or even rubbing each tuber with a pumice stone.
I have a better way: soaking it in a bucket of water, gently rubbing off the mud and pressure cooking helps peel off the skin pretty easily.
If you get your hands on Chinese potatoes, bury one or two in your garden or a windowsill pot. You will get green foliage, and, in four-six months, pretty purple flowers. If you are lucky, you can dig out some new tubers too! If not, you have a pretty houseplant.
250g Chinese potatoes
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp coconut oil
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1 sprig curry leaves
2-3 dried red chillies
2 tsp split uraddal
A pinch of asafoetida
1/3 tsp turmeric powder
1-2 tbsp fresh grated coconut
Soak the Chinese potatoes in a tub of water for 30 minutes. Scrub off as much mud as possible. Pressure-cook for 1-2 whistles. Once cooled, remove from cooker and peel them. Cut into quarters or 1cm-thick slices. Toss in salt and keep aside.
In a pan, heat oil and fry the mustard seeds, curry leaves, chillies, urad dal, asafoetida and turmeric. When the seeds splutter and the urad dal turns light brown in colour, add the prepared koorka. Fry on medium flame for 5-6 minutes.
Garnish with fresh coconut. Serve with rice and rasam.
Garlic and Herbs Chinese Potatoes
250g Chinese Potatoes
O tsp coarse salt
2 tbsp olive oil
5-6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tbsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1/2 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
Clean, pressure-cook and peel Chinese potatoes as in the above recipe. Halve or quarter them to get bite-size pieces.
In a large bowl, combine olive oil, salt, garlic, chopped herbs, black pepper and toss the Chinese potatoes until well coated with the oil, plus seasoning. Transfer into a baking pan or roasting tin, big enough not to overcrowd the pieces.
Preheat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius. Bake for 20-25 minutes until golden brown on the outside. Serve hot as an appetizer or as a side.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer is the author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian.
He tweets at @saffrontrail