Hot potatoes and cool science in the Scottish Parliament

Hot Potatoes Cool Science – team picture at Festival of Politics event 2015

We promised surprises at our food and science event in the Festival of Politics but we weren’t expecting to be quite so surprised ourselves.  Who knew China is the biggest producer of potatoes in the world?

Well, Dr Glenn Bryan for one.  Our speaker at the History of the Potato event revealed many little known facts about the far from humble tattie, which has come a very long way since it was first cultivated in Peru, 5,000 years ago, but perhaps that was the most startling one. Barely grown 20 years ago, potatoes have become an increasingly important crop in China enabling the government to lift many people out of poverty. Now China produces a quarter of the world’s potatoes, as Glenn told the audience in the Members Room at the Scottish Parliament.

In turn we had a surprise for the scientist whose day job generally involves long hours in the laboratory. Dr Bryan is one of the world’s leading experts on the biology of the potato – he heads the Potato Genetics and Breeding group at the James Hutton Institute in Dundee and led the British contingent of the international consortium which cracked the code of the potato genome.  He arrived primed to give a PowerPoint presentation, but World Kitchen in Leith’s Mark Whitehead had another idea…

‘Never shared the stage with a chef before!’ tweeted @potatodoctor

Cookery demonstration: Glenn Bryan in conversation with Mark Whitehead

Chilli pepper? Glenn tells Mark it’s a member of the potato family, Solanaceae

Undaunted, the geneticist gamely pocketed his mobile phone and joined the WKiL team on stage as Mark introduced a cookery demonstration of an African version of an Indian street food dish with Scottish potatoes. It was a typically multicultural WKiL fusion. Alice Musamba showed how potatoes can be transformed into an aromatic African curry while Vidya Burre rolled and cooked Indian rotis to wrap them in.  Then Mark whisked up a coriander and mint relish and tamarind sauce to add extra zest, working against the clock. In true Master Chef style he wrapped it all up just in time to hand the floor (and a freshly made ‘Frankie’) to the speaker.

It was, to quote a friend, ‘a delightfully quirky combination’: not just the science, history and future importance of the potato, but geography, culture, cuisine and maybe even a little politics all blended into one action packed hour.

Glenn starts the power point presentation

Naseem and Alice clear the stage

We are very grateful to the Festival of Politics and the enthusiastic support of their team who allowed us to fill the Members Room with spicy smells. And to Scottish Parliament Chef, Stuart Rose, who let us into his kitchen – WKiL had created an international menu of potato dishes and Stuart rustled up trays of samples made to Mark’s recipes.

Thanks, too, to a lovely responsive audience of more than 40  – more than we expected on a day when so much was happening in the parliament and the rest of the city – who joined in the discussion, asking questions and clearing the trays of canapés.  As requested, we will follow up soon with recipes and slides from Glenn’s fascinating presentation. There is so very much more to say about the potato!

For more about potato research contact

See other World Kitchen in Leith recipes HERE.

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