What's so French about 'French fries'?

Friday, 16 May 2014 - 11:01pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna
  • A typical Belgian Frieterie. Pic: Pooja Bhula

Anything that gains popularity is bound to court controversy, so we’ll probably need Sherlock Holmes to settle the curious case of French fries. France’s claim to inventing this fun food stems from French army officer, Antoine Parmentier, who was held captive in Prussia during the Seven Years’ War. Back then, Europeans had odd beliefs about this tuber from Peru--some thought it caused diseases and was a witchcraft ingredient, while others mistook it for an aphrodisiac. Having survived on potatoes while in prison, after being released post war in the late 1700s, Parmentier popularised it amongst the French dignitaries of the time. While this is the most common story told in France, American historian, Karen Hess provides more evidence to this effect in Origin of Fries, with references of pommes frites from 1755 to 1824 in culinary books and several market or restaurant receipts.

 
On the other hand, Belgium’s Friet’s Museum presents an exhaustive history of the potato, its journey from Peru to Europe, the 5,000 varieties available today, the tools and utensils used to make fries in Belgium and so much more. While it credits Parmentier, amongst others, for influencing the evolution and promotion of potatoes and fries, it presents another version of the origin. As per Belgium’s story,  inhabitants who lived near river Meuse, in the Mosane region, traditionally caught small fish, and fried them whole before eating. When the river froze during a harsh ‘50s winter, making it impossible to fish, the inhabitants cut potatoes into slices resembling fish, and fried them. 

Then why do we say French fries? As per the museum, this expression came into use during World War I, when French-speaking Belgian soldiers (Belgium is divided into the Dutch dominated–Flanders, and French dominated–Walloon), offered fries to American soldiers. The Americans thought they were French, and voila—French fries. The museum also mentions that there's no scientific or historical proof of the origin of fries. So this debate remains unsettled, but the Belgian love for fries is obvious. They serve them with all kinds of meals, in small steals buckets and cones. Just as there are cafes for coffee, Belgians have mobile frieteries, serving fries with a variety of sauces.


Fries are eaten in cones in Belgium (Pic: Getty Images)

Mulling over how fries came to India, I remembered that as a child I called them potato chips or finger chips. This is not surprising, considering the British, who may have introduced them to us, call them chips. Chef Harpal Sokhi of Food Food Channel and Rohan D’souza–Lead Chef, Corner Courtyard, support my hunch that we began referring to chips as fries only after Mc Donalds entered India. Chef Sokhi recalls, “But 5-star hotel menus called them fries much earlier.”

“The variety of fries available in India is limited, with thick-cut fries (thicker, starchier and fluffier), crinkle-cut fries (with ridges on its body), regular fries (thin, long and crunchy) and potato wedges (thick and fluffy fries with the peel on) dominating the scene,” Chef D’Souza tells us. He also brings us good news, curly fries may soon be more easily available.

Want to make your fries like the restaurants? Chef Harpal Sokhi tells you how
- Cut potatoes into the right shape.
- Parboil them in water to which vinegar and salt has been added.
- Drain and cool the fries.
- Store them in individual packs in a deep freezer.
- Fry them as and when required, directly after removing them from the deep freezer.

 

 




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