From ‘Mama Jatha’ to patates

From ‘Mama Jatha’ to patates

Aylin Öney Tan -
From ‘Mama Jatha’ to patates High up in the Peruvian plateaus of the Andes Mountains, “Mama Jatha,” meaning nurturing mother, is how the natives call potatoes. The story of the potato is a long one, but its history in Turkey is rather short. Potatoes, native to southern pre-Spanish Peru and the northwest tip of Bolivia, had been first cultivated about 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. It has been a staple food for Andes people since then and it was introduced to Europe after the Columbus exchange in the second half of the 16th century. The Europeans did not readily accept it until it was finally realized as a very important staple food, alternative to rye and wheat. Now, following maize, wheat and rice, it is the world’s fourth largest food crop.

We, in Turkey, did not know much about potatoes until about a century and half ago. It was almost in the end of the 19th century that Anatolian folks started savoring the taste of the starchy spud. The first ever appearance of a potato recipe in a Turkish cookbook is in 1844, in Melceü’t-Tabbâhîn (The Cook’s Refuge), when it was still a novelty for the elite and the court. The general public did not even hear of what a potato was until then. The author Mehmet Kamil Bey gives a recipe of a potato and meat stew and cannot help, but feel the urge to explain what a potato is. He describes it as something similar to Jerusalem artichokes, or topinambur, which in Turkish is comically called “pomme de terre,” or “apples from the earth.” It is rather amazing that the potato became popular in Turkish cookery, sometimes cooked on its own, but mostly sneaking into dishes making them more substantial and wholesome.

Now potatoes, together with onions seem to be the basic staples found in every kitchen, but it was a novelty not so long ago. The elite, and the Ottoman court, started eating potatoes in the early 1800’s, but most of the population had to wait for another century to enjoy the potato. It was a late start, but the fondness for the taste was irreversible.

The Ottomans were late to discover the potato, but they were quick to discover its virtues. Potato cultivation was first initiated by agriculturalist Arver Ağaton at around 1830, in Alibeyköyü, close to Kartal. Another introduction of the potato was through the Black Sea region by the Russians around 1878. An old variety of potato in the eastern Black Sea is still locally called Kartoli, indicating its Russian origin. By 1895, there was research conducted under the guidance of a German potato expert named Dr. Hermann, where nine potato varieties were examined to select the best fit for cooking. Soon after, following a few consequent years of draught, potato cultivation was encouraged around the Van area, and eventually in other regions. The appeal of the Armenian patriarch not to tax potatoes was taken into consideration and by a declaration announced Oct. 23, 1881, potatoes were kept exempt from taxes for three years. However, for the true boom in potato cultivation there had to be a famine-threatening period of draught, starting at the end of 1886. Soon, another five-year tax exemption was declared March 4, 1887. By the turn of the century Adapazarı had already become a potato-growing center, with a yield of three-four tons annually. That was the first real kick in the rise of Anatolian potato agriculture.

Today, the one and only “Potato Research Institute” of Turkey is in Niğde. Until recent years, the potatoes of Nevşehir were famous, but due to wrong practice and the lack of crop rotation, as a rule to sustainable agriculture, potato wart struck the area, eventually leading to a ban on potato agriculture in some localities of Niğde and Nevşehir. As the soil is contaminated, it is not allowed to grow potatoes in some areas. Still an important potato zone, the area is trying to recover by a strict control of certificated buds and increasing subsidies. One agro-academy was initiated in 2012 by the leading potato chip brand Lays, to improve and secure the future of local potato varieties by producing safe potato seedling buds totally locally.

Bite of the week

Recipe of the Week: When she was small, my daughter’s favorite chicken recipe was with chips. Cut into longish strips 4 chicken breasts (I mean 2 pairs). You should have approximately 4 to 6 pieces from each breast. Mash 3-4 cloves of garlic with 1 teaspoon salt and mix with 1/2 cup of sunflower seed oil. Crumble a bag of potato chips in its pack and transfer to a flat plate. Dip each chicken piece in garlicky oil and then coat each piece with crumbled chips. Arrange all in shallow baking tray in a single layer and bake for exactly 35 minutes in 180 C oven.

Fork of the Week: Sometimes we are too lazy to fry potatoes, but desperately want some. Reach out for a bag of chips, preferably a low fat one, but take your time to make a quick dip, it’s worth the effort. Chop finely a handful of fresh herbs, fresh dill & mint works particularly well, chop very finely a few stalks of green parts of spring onions, or chives, mix with a cup of plain yogurt. You will need a kick mix in a clove of garlic minced with ½ teaspoon salt. The oven baked yogurt flavored Lays works particularly well with this yogurt dip.

Cork of the Week: A nice crisp white will be ideal for any dish with potatoes, particularly refreshing with the chicken & chips recipe above. My favorite recently has been Egeo Sauvignon Blanc by Kavaklıdere, another ideal one is Côtes d’Avanos Sauvignon Blanc, from Cappadocia, more or less from the same territory with the potatoes, close to Nevşehir.