My first experience with potato salad was tragic. It was cold, grey and weirdly sweet, laced with the acrid taste of stale onions. I mean, it was disgusting. I know that’s not a nice thing to say about food but….it was.
What made it more shocking is that I didn’t know what to expect. In my consciousness up until that point, the closest I had come to eating a potato in some sort of salad was in a Bangladeshi dish called chotpoti. The key ingredient in that is actually a boiled bean, similar to a chickpea, but it is accompanied with boiled potatoes and chopped boiled eggs, just like in potato salad.
But, BUT and this is a BIG ol’ but – it is spicily dressed with sour tamarind, lime juice, green chilies, black salt or rock salt (this stuff is vile but in a strangely pleasing way), raw onion (acrid but fresh) and cilantro (give or take a few ingredients based on the cook or street cart operator in charge). I mean, it is truly a spicy, pungent salad.
Pungent, by the way, is a word foodies use to politely say “it stinks”. You’re on your own if you eat this on a date or you know, out in public. Incidentally, many – most – recipes from Eastern cultures don’t take the whole dating thing into consideration. Way to keep it real – I mean, if a little “pungent” onion breath is going to put you off someone, it’s safe to say it’s not true love.
So anyway, back to the generally more date-friendly American potato salad. I’ve got the spicy-savory chotpoti in my mind, I’m looking at this ….gosh, I can’t even describe the color – it’s a non-color color, neither white, nor yellow, neither beige, nor cream, a color that doesn’t even want to be a color – at any rate…I had my first taste of delicatessen potato salad and I couldn’t understand for the life of me why anyone would want to do that to a potato.
I avoided potato salad like the plague after that. Never before had my palate been so confused, shocked and offended by a food. Chances are, you would feel the same way about chotpoti. It’s karmic food retribution.
It was years of potato-salad-disdain and Food TV watching later that I came to understand the basic combination of components that make the dish. The key demystification for me was realizing that you’ve got to make it at home and you’ve got to eat it fresh, preferably at someone’s backyard barbecue party. You can’t let it sit in mayonnaise clumped goop on a deli tray for days on end and have any hope in hell that it’s going to taste good.
And no sugar. No. Sugar. On. Potato. Non!
Truth be told, this is one of those dishes that I’ll never be able to really crack because I just don’t get it – like I can’t get inside the Mr. Potato Salad Head, so I can’t really formulate what the perfect Traditional Potato Salad should taste like. I guess some things about certain cultures do remain a mystery – and that’s a nice thing too.
It’s diversity that unifies.
Cilantro – Green Chili Potato Salad
I’m sure I’ve seen someone (possibly Ina Garten) bake/roast potatoes rather than boil them in preparation for potato salad before. I simply don’t want a water logged potato and I find baking them makes them more potato-y. I like the textural contrast from the skins as well and love to leave the potatoes in large pieces so we know for certain These Are Potatoes.
For the dressing – ah, so many options – but I wanted to keep it pretty simple here with just mayo and lemon. I’m not a mayo-hater (my French fry dippage of choice has always been mayo rather than ketchup – my thighs have not thanked me) but I did toy around with the Greek yogurt idea. In the end, what I wanted for this recipe was something that was fairly minimal and close to the traditional. I happily replaced the vinegar with lemon juice since finding Laurie Colwin’s recipe in the Potato Salad chapter of her book. This chapter also went a long way in redeeming the general, overall reputation of potato salads in my life.
To make it suit my palate, I’ve added the two unusual and vehemently non-traditional ingredients that I simply cannot live without – Thai bird chilies and cilantro. That’s culture shock in reverse.
1 pound baby Yukon gold (or other baby) potatoes
1/4 cup mayonnaise
Juice of ½ a lemon
1 (or 2 or 3) Thai bird chilies, sliced thinly
½ cup cilantro, roughly chopped
Preheat oven to 400.
Wash and scrub potatoes. Prick with the tines of a fork. If there are any potatoes that are especially large, you can slice them in half. Place them on a baking sheet and bake in a 400 degree oven for approximately 35-45 minutes.
Remove them from the oven and allow them to cool until they’re just about lukewarm. Slice potatoes in half.
Moving on to the dressing – whisk together mayonnaise and lemon juice. Add the chopped Thai bird chilies, potatoes and cilantro and toss until everything is evenly dispersed and coated with dressing.
Makes 2 generous servings.