Batata who?

I started writing this post because something has been bothering me. Repeatedly. Over the course of several months. And I unfortunately have been unable to do anything about it for a long, long time.

It would be injustice to blame my inaction on my inaptitude because only after doing the research and some initial writing that this draft earned the privilege of being both the least urgent and the least important task on my to-do list. I did find the answers to the questions I was seeking though. They were just so inconsequential in comparison to everyday trivialities that it made little sense to delve any further and give it more weight than worth its salt.

And this is where all the trouble began. I had a newfound skill through which I can trivialise anything and everything to being worth not more than a grain of sand. A skill, which if not controlled can give you a mild case of nihilism. Now, don't get me wrong; I do believe nihilism has a place. I just can't imagine myself going there in a right state of mind anytime soon. It is meaningless to believe that life is meaningless.

andi 🍋 ceo of sanji on X: "22 years since luffy's "i refuse your refusal"  to sanji 😭" / X

This gave me a tad bit more reason to seek everything I find worth seeking for. And with your attention and permission here, I'd like to take you on one such exploration starting right from your kitchen...


  • Prologue
  • The Travelogue of Mister Potato
  • Rolling down South
  • The Sanskrit roots of Ālu
  • Wait, so what was that tuber they used to eat earlier?
  • Epilogue


Ever get that feeling when you repeat a word so many times in your mind that it loses its meaning to you? It happened to me one day when looking at a potato. In the different languages of Northern and Central India, you will notice that the vegetable potato is known by a name which is some variation of the word 'Ālu'.

But somehow for some reason, the Marathis, the Gujaratis and the Konkanis seem to make an exception and prefer to call it 'Batata', 'Bateta', or 'Batato' instead. What's strange is that no other language here in India calls it something that's even remotely close to those words. As if a bunch of cool kids came along and suddenly wanted a different name for the same stuff which everybody has, so that the ones they have sounds much more interesting and anglicised, huh? What is even happening here?

The Travelogue of Mister Potato

aka... (expand this)

आलू कचालू बेटा कहाँ गए थे।

I don't care whether you loved or hated history in school but I know for a fact that the name Vasco da Gama certainly rings a bell for you. Mr. da Gama was a Portuguese explorer and the first person to discover the sea route to India from Europe. This little discovery of his in the 16th Century brought a lot of stuff to India (and allowed a lot more to be taken away by the Brit... *ahem* "traders who came to trade with us").

Among the things that these Portuguese explorers brought with them were the vegetables Potatoes, Tomatoes and Chillies. They brought a bunch of fruits like Papaya, Pineapple, Cashew, Guava and Custard Apple (cetaphal) with them as well. Quite contrary to what most Indian parents want you to believe, these vegetables are neither indigenous to India nor do any of our ancient texts make any mention of them. The people of our country however loved their taste and were quick to experiment and integrate them in all sorts of ways to their native cuisine. A historically significant event that would one day ignite the North-South food slander on Indian Twitter debating which is superior between Masala Dosa and Aloo Paratha.

So any dish that uses potato, tomato or chillies in India was practically invented during or after the 16th Century. Be it Samosa (best snack ever), the stuffing of Masala Dosa, Mirchi Vada, Aloo Paratha, Tomato Chutney, Chilli Pickle, and literally anything else that comes to your mind.

Also, with this newfound knowledge, you can now openly judge the writers of an Indian historical (pre-16CE) television series for not putting in enough research efforts when you see any of the above-mentioned vegetables in it.

* You know, I'm something of a researcher myself *

Portugal unfortunately does not get to claim the indigenousity of these vegetables either. There is a country called Spain that Portugal shares its borders with, and they are the ones who introduced tomatoes and potatoes to the Portuguese. Spaniards love these vegetables and much like India, these have become an integral part of their diets. In fact, they love tomatoes so much that they even hold a tomato-fighting festival called the La Tomatina every year (I know, I know you have watched ZNMD and know all about it from before).

But as much as they love them, the Spaniards cannot say these vegetables are their natives either. You see, after America, the 'New World' was discovered the Spanish were one of the early invaders there (apparently somebody was trying to find a new 'trade' route to India from the opposite direction because the world is round and accidentally discovered a new land with different "trade opportunities"). They observed the cultivation of potatoes in the regions which are now present-day Peru and tomatoes in the lands which are present-day Mexico. They liked these peculiar vegetables and introduced them to Europe when they got back.

Sticking to our star vegetable, the Taíno (an old and now-extinct Caribbean language) word for potato is 'batata' and the Quechuan (Peruvian language during the Inca Empire) word for it is 'papa'. not the same 'papa' that means father though you can totally call the potato as the papa of vegetables if you like) So, when taking it back, the Spanish mixed them up and gave way to 'patata', the Spanish word for Potato. The same word changed form to 'potato' when it came to English. The Portuguese though stuck with the word 'batata'.

The route which Mr. da Gama discovered brought him to the Western coast of India. The same coast that the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Goa share their sealine with. So our people they welcomed the new exotic veggies that these foreigners brought with them, they didn't really know what to call them and chose to name them whatever these fair-looking men said and thus they still use the words 'Batata', 'Bateta', or 'Batato'. Amazing, no?

Except that whatever I said above was a lie. It is not actually the potato which is called the 'batata' or 'patata', but in fact is its distant (and cuter) cousin, 'sweet potato'. Our dear Mister Potato was actually not very well respected the older times and was even called cruel names such as the 'bastard potato' because well... it seemed that way to them for reasons unknown to me. Eventually, with time and translation, the terms for the two got mixed and the one that we Indians were introduced to was common potato vegetable as we know it today.

BTW, here's a cute patata | Image generated by DALLE-3

Rolling down South

Our Mr. da Gama initially landed in the Indian city of Calicut in present-day Kerala. The Portuguese however eventually set their colonies a little north of it in the regions of present-day Goa, Daman, Karnataka, and Maharashtra. This *may be* the reason why we do not see many direct adoptions of their words in our Southern languages.

This might also be why the various names for potato in the major Dravidian languages today are semantically similar to their northern counterpart 'ālo'. See for yourself:

  • Tamil: உருளைக்கிழங்கு (Urulaikkizhangu)​
  • Telugu: బంగాళాదుంప (Bangālādumpa)​
  • Malayalam: ഉരുളക്കിഴങ്ങ് (Urulakkizhangu)
  • Kannada: ಆಲೂಗಡ್ಡೆ (Ālūgadde)

Well, okay, yeah, except for Kannada, they don't quite look that way, but allow me to explain.

Let's start with Tamil and Malayalam first because these words are kind of similar. The first part of both these languages i.e. உருளை (urulai) for Tamil and ഉരുള (urula) for Malayalam mean a 'roll' or a 'cylinder' and the second part i.e. கிழங்கு (kizhangu) for Tamil and കിഴങ്ങ് (kizhangu) for Malayalam mean 'a tuber'. So they both are just calling potato a 'cylindrical tuber'.

The Kannada word ಆಲೂಗಡ್ಡೆ literally is a combination of ಆಲೂ (ālū) which is well, the same as 'ālu' of the northern languages and ಗಡ್ಡೆ (gedde) meaning 'tuber', which makes the combined word as 'ālu tuber' Any 'chai tea' or 'naan bread' appreciators here?

The Telugu word is a little different though and can be broken up into బంగాళా (bangala) meaning Bengal and దుంప (dumpa) meaning tuber. When taken together, బంగాళాదుంప (Bangaladumpa)​ means 'the tuber from Bengal'. Whaaaat?

I do not have reliable sources to tell why the Kannada word has 'alu' in it or why Telugu has a reference to Bengal. The best explanation that I could find is that the region of Karnataka was ruled by various Muslim rulers during and after the times when the potato was first introduced to India. So, the people spoke a lot of Urdu (which has a heavy North Indian influence). And the word 'ālu' came into the language through this route. As for the word 'bangala' in Telugu, well, potato might have travelled into Andhra and Telangana with some Bengali traders who came down south in their lands to make some quick tākā and hence the Telugu people decided to name it just after that.

That's fine and all but it still doesn't make sense as to *why* these words are semantically related to 'ālu'. All we can see is that all of these names somehow share the word 'tuber' in them even though they are quite distinct from each other in the ways that they are formed. And to find that out, we need to look at a little Sanskrit.

The Sanskrit roots of Ālu

The humble Hindi आलु (ālu) comes from the Sanskrit word आलुक (āluk). This word can even be found as-it-is in the now-extinct language of Prakrit. Prakrit was the actual commonly-spoken language in ancient days, and Sanskrit was only reserved for the learned folks, formal education and record-keeping purposes.

Both Prakrit and Sanskrit have been used here for centuries before the Portuguese arrived. The question is, how did they know about ālu then? Did our ancient scholars really know time travel? Was the Pushpak Viman in fact a vehicle for transportation for potatoes? Did we make contact with Aliens? The truth is much much simpler.

Turns out our innocent common everyday ālu has been a victim of a blatant neologism. Neologism happens when a new word or phrase becomes common, or when an an existing word acquires a new meaning. So sick, right?

The ālu has been suggested to be derived from Proto-Indo-Aryan *HaHlu that came from the Proto-Indo-European *h₂eHlu  that means "edible root". Which suggests that there was a certain root that people used to eat as early as 2000-2500 years ago. An edible root, hmmm... that's exactly what a tuber is! (Well, technically also a stem but we allow some literary liberty here.)

And that's how the Hindi ālu connects semantically with the Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada counterparts.

And this formally quenched my curiosity on why it's not called ālu everywhere, why the selectivity of batata, bateta and batato to a few states and how the northern and southern names of potato mean the same thing even when the words are miles apart (literally).

Wait, so what was that tuber they used to eat earlier?

It was probably the Elephant Foot Yam, also known by different names such as Ōal/Ōl, Sūran, Zamīnkand, Bātema, Suvarnagadde, Kaaraa Karanai Kizangu, Chénaikkizangu across India. It is believed to originate from Southeast Asia and come to India via Thailand at least a couple thousand years ago.

Out of these various names which are interesting in their own ways, the Ōal/Ōl which is commonly spoken around Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Nepal and parts of UP stands out the most to me because that is what the word ālu sounds most similar to indicating a possible connection.

This is whey when you see any other variety of yam or taro/colocasia (another popular tuber), it is given some name which has some aspect of ālu to it such as:

  • Purple Yam? We'll name it रक्तालु (raktālu) or रतालू (ratālū), literally "blood yam"
  • Colocasia/Taro? Some call it कचु (kacu) and it is technically an आलु (ālu) so we'll combine them both and also call it कचालू  (kacālū)
  • Wild Air Potato? Let's call it बन (ban) + आलु (ālu) = बनालु (banālū)
  • Purple Yam but instead of colour describe how it looks? Well, it has lumps पिण्ड (pinda) and it is आलु (ālu) so call it पिंडालु (pindālu)
  • Elephant Foot Yam but do something different? Well, it's called Sūran in some places, so what if we add आलु (ālu) to it and make it सुरालु (surālu)
Dioscorea bulbifera - Wikipedia
This is what they call an Air Potato, because obviously. I prefer to call this an Air Ferrero Rocher.

And we can go on and on. Sanskrit has a trove of ālu words that are yet to reach mainstream uses. And some of them go really wild. You know the Touch-Me-Not plant also known as Mimosa pudica? It's called लाजवंती (Lājavantī) or छुईमुई (chuī-muī) in Hindi. It is a legume (not a tuber technically) but its roots are thicc and ayurveda found it useful. So what did we name it? लज्जालु (Lajjālu). If that is not the weirdest name, IDK what is.


This post has been in the drafts for longer than I can remember and it feels so glad to lift its weight from my chest. How did it help me? For once, it quenched my slight inconveniences I get everytime I go to the kitchen and face a raw potato looking directly at me through its eyes asking me to publish this right now. Second, it opened up space to write more about stuff because I have cleared all my drafts now. Third, if you liked something like this, I cannot get over recommending Logophilia because that's probably what ushered this inquisitiveness in me a couple years ago (They're having a new workshop too btw so you can check that out from the earlier link).

I had much much more stuff related to tubers and aloo that connects us to Goan and Portuguese Cuisine, Garlics, Onions, Wines and Vinegars that I could go on and on... but then this could have never ended. So maybe something for part 2? Because this what I have right now is enough.

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