Blog Archive

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Potato Salad that Switched Nationalities Three Times!


The Potato Salad that Switched Nationalities Three Times!
by Victoria Challancin

It happens.  Recipes change their minds.  They start out wanting to be one thing and almost without the help of the cook, they morph into something else entirely.  Take my Christmas Day potato salad...

We were sharing the holiday dinner with our dear friends, as we always do. As the Mexican husband/father was preparing the ham and the rest of the family contributing other dishes, I suggested that I bring Sweet Potato Biscuits (my Southern Roots coming out in full view for the holidays) and a Potato Salad.  Of course, I started with my Mom's traditional Southern egg-, pickle-,  and mayo-based potato salad in my head, but before I knew it, it had changed entirely to a bright, spicy Pakistani version that I learned to make from my good friend Misbah Naqvi, a colleague who taught with me at university in Bahrain so many years ago.

Pakistani-Style Potato Salad
(Adapted from a Recipe by Misbah Naqvi)

1 kilo (2.2 pounds) potatoes, cubed         (I used baby red potatoes)
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 red onion or 4 scallions, thinly sliced       (I didn't have any--but would have used them if I had!)
2 serrano chiles or other spicy green chile, chopped or thinly sliced
1/2 cup vinegar        (I used plain, white vinegar for its sharpness, but wine vinegar would work as well)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup chopped cilantro

Boil the potatoes in a large pot of salted water until fork-tender.

Heat a small dry skillet over medium heat, and add the cumin seeds.  Stir constantly until the seeds become fragrant, approximately 1 minute.  Be careful not to burn.  Set aside.

Drain the potatoes and place them in a bowl.  Add the cumin seeds, chiles, vinegar, salt and pepper.  Mix gently so as not to break up the potatoes.  Allow to cool slightly, add the cilantro, and mix gently again.  Check and adjust seasoning according to taste.  This potato salad should taste sharp and spicy,so don't be afraid to add more vinegar or chiles!


The Mexican Christmas Ham in the kitchen of my friends


I first learned how to make this potato salad, unlike any I had ever had, at one of our many joint potluck dinners in Bahrain, where my colleagues and friends, of all  various nationalities, tumbled dishes onto the table using recipes from all over the world.  This simple salad was so different for me--so full of bright, sharp flavors and gaspingly hot chiles, that I immediately asked for the recipe and knew it would become a staple in my own international kitchen.  The only problem with the recipe for this Mexican-American Christmas gathering was that the main spice was cumin seeds, which, if used in any apparent way, always elicits this response from my friends and their family:  It tastes like Tex-Mex!!!!  Not a compliment from them either...Apparently, in the minds of many Mexican friends, a little cumin is fine, but if the spice is very obvious, it suddenly crosses the Rio Grande and is no longer Mexican at all.


With this in mind, I thought I might add a few other spices, such as brown mustard, sesame, and coriander seeds to dilute the shock of the cumin and to slightly disguise its existence for my Mexican friends.  Voilà!  The Indo-Pakistani Potato Salad was born.


Indo-Pakistani Potato Salad
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)

Cook's Notes:  This is the same potato salad with the addition of a few more spices.  Adding chopped mint in addition to the cilantro would make a nice variation.

1 kilo (2.2 pounds) potatoes, cubed         (I used baby red potatoes)
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons black/brown mustard seeds
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 1/2 Tablespoons sesame seeds
1 red onion or 4 scallions, thinly sliced       (I didn't have any--but would have used them if I had!)
2 serrano chiles or other spicy green chile, chopped or thinly sliced
1/2 cup vinegar        (I used plain, white vinegar for its sharpness, but wine vinegar would work as well)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup chopped cilantro

Boil the potatoes in a large pot of salted water until fork-tender.

Heat a small dry skillet over medium heat, and add the cumin, mustard, coriander, and sesame seeds.  Stir constantly until the seeds become fragrant, approximately 1 minute.  Be careful not to burn.  Set aside.

Drain the potatoes and place them in a bowl.  Add all the toasted seeds (cumin, mustard, coriander, and sesame), chiles, vinegar, salt and pepper.  Mix gently so as not to break up the potatoes.  Allow to cool slightly, add the cilantro, and mix gently again.  Check and adjust seasoning according to taste.  






And before it was all over, some sumac found its way into the dish and a hefty splash of olive oil as well.  And now, my beautiful, beloved Pakistani-Style Potato Salad had switched nationalities yet again, crossing the Indian Ocean to land firmly in the Middle East, with flavors borrowed so long ago from the Sub-Continent.

When my friend first tasted it, she thought I had added Dukkah--and what a great idea for next time, just in case the recipe wants to change continents and leap over to Middle Eastern Africa...

Whatever you call this dish, it dazzled.  Its unique flavors complimented the rest of the meal; the chiles and cilantro kept my Mexican friends feeling like it was their own; and I was left to marvel once again at the way recipes have a mind of their own, of how they demand the freedom to change and grow, how the ultimate expressions brings to light the cook's own tastes and preferences, and how, with a little help from a lively imagination, a new recipe is born:  Middle Eastern-Style Potato Salad.




Middle Eastern-Style Potato Salad
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)

Cook's Notes:  Again, this is the same potato salad but with the addition of sumac and olive oil.  Mint and cilantro would also work in this version as would the addition of chopped bell pepper.  This isn't really a vinaigrette, but rather a vinegary dressing with a hint of olive oil.  But feel free to play with the flavors and make them your own!

1 kilo (2.2 pounds) potatoes, cubed         (I used baby red potatoes)
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons black/brown mustard seeds
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 1/2 Tablespoons sesame seeds
1 red onion or 4 scallions, thinly sliced       (I didn't have any--but would have used them if I had!)
2 serrano chiles or other spicy green chile, chopped or thinly sliced
1/2 cup vinegar        (I used plain, white vinegar for its sharpness, but wine vinegar would work as well)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons ground sumac
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1/3 cup olive oil

Boil the potatoes in a large pot of salted water until fork-tender.

Heat a small dry skillet over medium heat, and add the cumin, mustard, coriander, and sesame seeds.  Stir constantly until the seeds become fragrant, approximately 1 minute.  Be careful not to burn.  Set aside.

Drain the potatoes and place them in a bowl.  Add all the toasted seeds (cumin, mustard, coriander, and sesame), chiles, vinegar, salt and pepper.  Mix gently so as not to break up the potatoes.  Allow to cool slightly, add the cilantro, and mix gently again.  Check and adjust seasoning according to taste.  


Drain the potatoes and place them in a bowl.  Add the cumin seeds, chiles, vinegar, salt and pepper.  Mix gently so as not to break up the potatoes.  Allow to cool slightly, add the sumac, cilantro,  and olive oil;  mix gently again.  Check and adjust seasoning according to taste.  





If you enjoyed this post, you might like to read more about Sumac and Dukkah here:

Sumac:  A Middle Eastern Culinary Treat

Dukkah:  An Egyptian Nut and Spice Blend


Victoria Challancin
Flavors of the Sun International Cooking School
San Miguel de Allende, México

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

3 comments:

Ben said...

Oh very nice. I like things and people with multiple nationalities :D

Lesley said...

Thanks for the inspiration! I had a bunch of potatoes that I bought in Oaxaca and I made this today, with a few personal tweaks. Loved it.

Victoria Challancin said...

Thanks for the Feedback, Lesley. I love it that you love it! And I also love "tweaks!"