Since my mother keeps a Jain kitchen, I’ve never been taught how to cook a potato. It was only when I began cooking my own meals at university, that I touched an uncooked potato tuber for the first time. It was through elaborate googling and youtubing that I learnt that potatoes must be boiled in their skin, before one can proceed to peel and cook them. While I remain thankful to the internet for teaching me the most basic of culinary lessons, I will also always grudge it the confusion that ensued for several months after.
Like most things which vary across time and space, the duration for which a potato must be boiled remains highly contested on the internet. Inspired by how intuitive “boil till soft” sounded, I embarked on my first potato cooking adventure. After impatiently waiting for my potatoes to cook for what seemed like twenty-minutes, I turned-off my electric cooker, checked if a fork went through the potatoes, and then attempted to peel them. This resulted in scathed hands, bleedy nails and eventually, an annoying potato-curry. The potatoes weren’t particularly soft, and I was unable to peel-off their skins with my stubble-nails. I tried using a knife instead of my nails, and this seemed to work; however the large volume of non-skin potato which came off with the skin offended the home-economics sensibilities that I’ve imbibed in my middle-class upbringing. Wastage was not okay. The hard-potato-squishy-tomato curry that came of this first attempt, almost convinced me that it’s a bad idea to step out of the culture-system in which one grew up.
My second attempt was a similar disaster, even though I had cut the potatoes into quarters before boiling them in water (unsalted, because I forgot). I ended up burning my hands one again, not having learnt about cooling the potatoes by dipping them in cold water before working with them and because patience is a virtue that I am yet to master. With this, I finished the first kg of potatoes that I’d purchased, and didn’t buy another for a long time after.
Ironically, I started cooking potatoes again when I was craving the familiar comfort of home, 6 months later. I bought a bag of potatoes from the local Indian store, and this time, I let the potatoes boil, while I read a book, for a good 45 minutes or more, before soaking them in cold water, and trying to peel them. This time, I ended up with disintegrated chunks of potato starch and skin swimming in water. Unable to retrieve the swimming chunks, I settled with cooking the larger pieces that I could salvage with a spoon. These turned out to be nice, and even though I blamed myself for wasting the crumbly pieces, I was more or less happy that I was making progress.
The next few attempts involved further trial, error and mental calibration. I’d calm my impatience by taking showers or studying in the kitchen while the potatoes boiled. This has left me with a habit of studying in the kitchen, and a partiality towards taking showers before meals.
The first time I got it right was when I’d invited a friend over for dinner, and he turned up with 3 others. Short of time and food, I decided to boil some potatoes while I made the rajma, kaccha kela, and rice which I had initially planned on serving. The confusion over the hustle to prepare enough for everyone, while making conversation with the 4 lovely people who had unexpectedly landed up in my kitchen turned out to be the best timer for my potatoes. To this day, I am unabashedly proud of the presence of mind that I exhibited that evening.
By the end of the year, I have figured out that there are no rubrics for boiling potatoes. It really just varies from potato to potato. I’m convinced that most potatoes just sit around measuring whether you’ve given them enough patience, thought, and care before they make up their minds to morph into “soft boiled” form. Yet, they’re not okay with you distracting yourself while they’re left behind to be boiled. Much like life, they really prefer it if you’re mindful. That sort of explains the drinking of wine while cooking.
Learning to cook for and take care of myself are two of the most important lessons that I learnt as a graduate student. The most arduous one of them was that of learning how to boil a potato.