Dozing on my verandah, I was awakened by my little granddaughter’s wailing. Moments later this little bundle of fun was standing by my chair with a tear stained face and a look as if she was burdened by a ton of complaints. It turned out that her cousins had called her a ‘mota aloo pilpila’ (a fat and rotten potato) and she wanted me to wreak vengeance upon them. I immediately got into my peace keeping mode using a stick of chocolate and a promise to take her out for a sundae (unlike the United Nations, I always keep promises made to my children and grandchildren). This little encounter set me ruminating about the ‘vegetable’ that is perhaps the world’s most popular food.

The potato is a starchy, tuberous crop from the perennial nightshade Solanum Tuberosum L. The plant is indigenous to the Andes Region and was introduced to the outside world some four centuries ago. While the underground ‘root’ is eaten, the green leaves and green skins of tubers exposed to light are known to be toxic. The concentration of Glyco-alkaloid in wild potatoes may cause headaches, diarrhea, cramps, and in severe cases coma and death. However, thanks to nature, poisoning from potatoes occurs very rarely as light exposure causes greening from chlorophyll synthesis, thus giving a visual clue as to areas of the tuber that may be more toxic.

While many types of wild potatoes can be found throughout the Americas from the United States to Southern Chile, genetic testing of a wide variety of cultivars and wild species points to a single origin in what is present day Peru and Northwestern Bolivia about seven thousand to ten thousand years ago. After centuries of selective breeding, there are now over a thousand different varieties of this tuber.

The wild potato was first domesticated in the region of modern-day southern Peru and extreme northwestern part of Bolivia between 8000 and 5000 BC. The earliest archaeologically verified potato tuber remains were discovered at the coastal site of Ancon in Central Peru and were dated to 2500 BC. It was the Spanish, who introduced this root to Europe in the second half of the 16th century. The staple was subsequently conveyed by European mariners to territories and ports throughout the world.

The potato is best known for its carbohydrate content, the predominant form of which is starch. A significant portion of this is resistant to digestive enzymes in the stomach and the small intestine. Much of it therefore, reaches the large intestine essentially intact as fiber, generating health benefits such as protection against colon cancer, improving glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, lowering plasma cholesterol and triglyceride concentrations, increasing satiety and possibly even reducing fat storage. The amount of this ‘good’ starch depends much on preparation methods. Cooking and then cooling significantly increases resistant starch. For example, cooked potato starch contains about seven percent resistant starch, which increases to about thirteen percent upon cooling.

The popularity of this ‘starch filled’ wonder package is such that it has found a niche for itself in English vocabulary. Take for example the term ‘Couch Potato’, which refers to a person, who is lazy and spends much of his time doing nothing.

The potato or ‘spud’ (as it is referred to by many) has been the cause of some momentous events in world history. In 1845, a plant disease caused by a fungus-like infestation and known as Late Blight, spread rapidly through Western Ireland, resulting in crop failures and consequently the Great Irish Famine.

It was the potato’s perishability factor and consequent minimal presence that lent price stability in international financial markets during the 2007–2008 World Food Price Crisis. A grateful world acknowledged this through the United Nations, which officially declared 2008 as the International Year of the Potato, calling it a “hidden treasure”.

If this delectable bundle of starch that feeds millions can have such profound effects on societies and economies, then it justifiably deserves to be called ‘the King of Vegetables’ or perhaps ‘The Royal Spud’.