The Circus Gardener's Kitchen

seasonal vegetarian recipes with a side helping of food politics

aloo chaat

jump to recipe

Hailed as one of the emerging great economies, India boasts some of the wealthiest people in the world.

It is also home to more of the world’s poor than any other country on the planet.

Whilst the country has seen a huge expansion in its technology and consumer goods industries over the past two decades, around 70% of India’s inhabitants still live in rural areas and have been largely untouched by the economic upturn. There, amongst small-scale farmers in particular, debt and poverty is rife.

I have written previously about the shocking rate of suicide amongst poor Indian farmers (official figures put this at 270,000 suicides since 1995). In most instances it is believed to be a combination of crop failure and debt that lies behind these tragic deaths.

This explosion of farmer suicides is also linked inextricably to the country’s agricultural reforms, and in particular to the deregulation of its seed sector in the 1990s, a move which paved the way for companies like the global chemical giant Monsanto to move in on the market.

Seeds are the source of life, the very start of the natural food cycle. But in India (and elsewhere) Monsanto has fractured that cycle by deliberately creating sterile seeds, containing a so-called “suicide gene”. This suicide gene prevents farmers saving and sowing the seeds from one year to the next, meaning they must buy them annually from Monsanto.

In other words, the seed – for centuries a natural, renewable resource and a symbol of continuity – has been replaced across much of India’s farming community by an engineered, patented commodity which is the exact opposite.

The reason so many farmers bought into Monsanto’s “suicide gene” seeds in the first place (often borrowing money to do so) was the lure of greater yields claimed by Monsanto’s advertisements. In practice, those claims have often not been realised. In the case of cotton, in particular, some Indian farmers have instead experienced devastating crop failures.

Another problem is that the sheer cost of annually purchasing GM seed has forced many small farms away from traditional crop diversification and into monoculture. This is especially true of crops such as cotton and coffee. By its very nature, monoculture is much more vulnerable to disease and pests (concentrate any crop in a large area and you will attract its natural predators). Monoculture makes the grower more vulnerable too – if the crop fails, the farmer has no other crops to turn to.

Increased monoculture has also led to greater use of pesticides and weedkiller, not only damaging the soil and the environment but costing poor farmers more money. By coincidence, it also boosts Monsanto’s profits as the company happens to manufacture the world’s most widely used herbicide “Roundup”.

In August 2012, India’s parliamentary committee on Bt crops (“Bt” is the name of a variety of genetically modified crop patented and marketed by Monsanto) released a damning report, recommending a ten year moratorium on field trials of all genetically modified crops.

That recommendation has yet to be enacted by the Indian government, but already it may be too late. In a few short years, Monsanto has managed to make itself indispensable to India’s farming community, with a monopoly over many of the seeds on which they have come to depend.

As Monsanto’s grip has intensified, so many of the traditional, natural, heritage seed varieties that used to be sown have not been collected and may have been lost forever. In some cases there is now probably no alternative to Monsanto.

We live in a world on the brink of crisis: intensive agriculture is patently unsustainable, the total human population continues to grow whilst the amount of land available for agriculture continues to shrink. In this context we should be alarmed at Monsanto’s ruthless quest for monopoly ownership and control of the world’s seeds, the stuff of life upon which every single one of us ultimately depends.

digging up potatoesharvested potatoesaloo chaat in pansqueezed lemon
On to the recipe. I cooked this side dish as part of an Indian meal to celebrate my eldest son’s return last month from India, where he had been living and working for three months. Like so many visitors to India, Jack fell in love with the country and although he is planning to start university next September, he hopes to return to India in the new year. He was, of course, also deeply affected at the way enormous wealth and abject poverty coexisted so closely in cities such as Mombai and Delhi, and by the apparent lack of serious political will to tackle the degrading conditions in which so many are forced to exist.

Jack also developed a love for Indian street food whilst he was out there, and this dish, aloo chaat, originating in Uttar Pradesh, is but one of a great variety of wonderful street foods to be found across India.

My version uses some of the Setanta potatoes from this year’s crop on my allotment plot, the Circus Garden, but any variety of maincrop potato would work just as well.

Aloo chaat is a very simple but deeply satisfying dish which which can be eaten as a side dish or on its own, street-food style. It would also work well as a lively alternative for breakfast, served with grilled tomatoes and a poached egg or two.

aloo chaat


450 g potatoes, peeled and cut into roughly 1-2cm cubes
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
pinch asafoetida
2 red chillies, seeds in (deseed for a less hot version), chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp sea salt
150 ml water
juice of half a lemon
1 tbsp fresh coriander leaves, chopped
1 tbsp ground nut oil


1. Place the chilli and garlic into a mini chopper or a pestle and mortar and blend or pound to a coarse paste.

2. Heat the oil in a frying pan or skillet over a high heat. When hot, add the mustard seeds and the cumin seeds. The mustard seeds will start “popping” after about. 30 seconds, at which point add the asafoetida. Stir and cook for a further 30 seconds then add the onions and reduce the heat to medium.

3. Fry the onions, stirring every so often, until they are soft and translucent. Now add the garlic and chilli paste, the chopped potatoes, salt, turmeric and ground coriander and stir.

4. Continue to cook and stir for 5 minutes, then add the water and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer then reduce the heat a little to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook for around 15 more minutes or until the potato cubes are tender and the water has been absorbed or evaporated. Remove from the heat, squeeze the lemon juice over the top and scatter with the chopped coriander. Serve immediately.

Categories: dairy free, gluten free, vegan

Tags: , , , , ,

18 replies

  1. Gosh yes, Monsatano (see what I did there?) horrible and dangerous combined. Oddly enough we’re watching a Canadian series at present called ‘Continuum’ (see here at IMDB: if curious) which poses an intriguing, though frighteningly perhaps not all that unrealistic, vision of a near future where vastly powerful and wealthy corporations effectively seize government, by bailing out governmental debt. Otherwise, lovely dish, and fab photography – certainly considerably sunnier than the tragic fortunes of those Indian Basmati farmers you refer to..

    • Thanks for your comments on the recipe and photos.

      I’ll definitely look into “Continuum”. Several of these multinationals are already, in terms of turnover, the size of economically low-to-middle ranking countries, and I fear we are heading towards a future in which three multinationals in particular – Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer – will hold the “patents” to nearly all the world’s seeds (by which time most seeds will be hybridised or genetically modified), whilst most true, heritage varieties will have been eradicated by their aggressive corruption of the centuries old practice of saving and sowing seed. Unless it is checked, breaking that link between crop and seed, as Monsanto is doing, will ultimately give these companies exactly the kind of power over governments you have described.


  2. Love Indian food, but never visited – can’t cope with that long flight. Thank you for bringing us this taste of India – particularly as I have so many potatoes from my own allotment. It sounds delicious and I will be trying it soon.

    Is there anything we as consumers can do in the face of the seemingly irresistible rise of Monsanto?


    • Thank you for your comments, Linda, I hope you enjoy trying this recipe.

      Although Monsanto sometimes seems unstoppable, we aren’t helpless and there are thing we can each do:

      – wherever possible, buy organic, local products;
      – don’t buy products which contain GMOs (much easier here in the UK than in the U.S.);
      – avoid buying products from corporations which have opposed the right for US citizens to know whether the food they eat contains GMOs – that list includes Heinz, Coca Cola, Kraft and Unilever (so no more Ben & Jerrys);
      – never buy or use “Roundup”, and encourage others to do the same;
      – write to/lobby your MP and MEP about Monsanto and GMOs.

  3. Lovely recipe, Steve, and the photographs are as beautiful as ever.

    As for what we can do to ward off the evil that is Monsanto, I’d add this – grow heritage varieties and avoid F1 varieties, which may well produce sterile seed. Save your own seeds every year and share them with other growers. Improve the varieties you grow by choosing seed from the best plants and they will become well adapted to your local environment. Keep doing that for as long as you can and you may not need to buy many seeds at all.

    • Hi Miranda, and thanks for your comments on the recipe and photos. Thanks, too, for making such a good point about saving and sowing true seed. Given all the positive benefits of doing so, it’s extraordinary that it this is an activity that is becoming increasingly uncommon.


  4. Omg!! Looks super delish Steve. I must try ur recipe sumtime.

  5. Wow I didn’t know all that about the seeds and Monsanto. I’ve never considered that company’s impact outside of the US. On to the recipe. I do love aloo chaat. Chaat means to lick and your photo certainly looks very lickable!

  6. Thank you Urvashi. I also love aloo chaat, although until now I didn’t know that was what “chaat” meant!


  7. Hi there, love the aloo chaat recipe, one of my favorites. About the GMO use in India, I interviewed farmers who grow GMO cotton for my blog, and found a different story. It is not that they don’t have problems, but they both emphatically liked the seeds and the technology, but noted problems with not getting loans, high cost of labor, etc.

    • Dear Aneela

      Thanks for your kind comments about the recipe, it’s also one of my favourites.

      As for GMO use in India, thank you for the link to your posts on the subject, which I have now read. Although I did not interview individual farmers (even if I’d had the chance to do so, the ones I wrote about cannot be interviewed as they have taken their own lives), I have relied upon multiple sources in writing this post, including parts of the Indian media, and I carefully cross-checked my facts before publishing.

      It was reported in the Indian media earlier this year that massive failures of genetically modified bt cotton crops in parts of the country had caused devastating individual losses to farmers, some of whom are amongst the suicide figures I have quoted (those figures, incidentally, were published by the Indian government).

      Interestingly, the Karnataka government (from where one of your farmer interviewees came) recently announced a ban on Monsanto-Mahyco’s GMO bt and hybrid seeds, whilst other states have imposed a ban on advertisements for GMO seeds. These actions are not consistent with the notion of a country that is at ease with GMOs.


      • Thanks for responding Steve. That is interesting because I talked to the farmer from Karnataka in June or July, and the seeds were nowhere close to being banned, in fact it was close to 90% adoption. I don’t know what to make of it, am looking into it.

        In any case, technology adoption in rural India does present some unique problems. For instance, there are problems of illiteracy, lack of regulated loans, lack of crop insurance, and so on. They are also not savvy about corporate marketing and have been misled by Monsanto’s glib talking.

        I explored this in the first article I wrote on this subject. You will find it linked from the interviews I sent to you.

        But I don’t think this is a black-and-white story. Despite the hurdles, many, many farmers have found Bt cotton a life-saving technology. They had given up on growing cotton entirely despite it being their ancestral heritage, before Bt cotton came into the market. Both of them and other farmers who commented said that aside from the Bt technology, this particular hybrid makes bigger bolls of cotton and gives them better yield (hence better profits).

        But, the seeds are more expensive, they cannot save them year to year (nor do they want to, apparently, because second generation seeds would not give them as good yields), they are not as drought-tolerant as conventional cotton, and, marketing hype has often misled farmers.


      • Hi Aneela

        Here is a report from the Business Standard in March 2014 on the Karnataka government’s decision to ban GMOs.

        Whilst it is true that for some farmers bt cotton has improved yields, for others it has caused catastrophic loss, their cotton crops having been destroyed by bollworm, to which bt cotton was supposed to be resistant.

        Any examination of the impact of GMOs on India’s rural economy cannot be undertaken in isolation from the broader political context. It was politics that put GMOs in India in the first place. Prior to the “liberalising reforms” of the 1990s, the farming community received subsidies from the Indian government in the form of guaranteed minimum payments for their crops. The gradual erosion of these subsidies coincided with the “liberalisation” of the country’s seed market and the arrival of Monsanto and GMOs.

        Whatever they currently regard as the benefits, the simple truth is that your bt cotton farmers are now locked in to purchasing their seed year on year from Monsanto and no one else.

        Monsanto are one of three global corporations (the others being Bayer and Syngenta) who over the past two decades have also gradually been buying up the patents to 70% of the world’s seeds. They have not obtained those patents for the benefit of humankind.

        Monsanto are not a force for good, either in India or the rest of the world.


  8. Hi there, this discussion has got me more interested in making an effort to avoid GMOs. Previously I haven’t really considered whether the whole foods in particular that I buy may be GMO free or not, I rather tended to just assume that whole foods would be OK, which was a completely unexamined assumption on my part. I’ve just contacted one of the whole food suppliers that I buy bulk items from in order to find out if they have a policy on GMOs. Any tips on how to avoid GMOs in whole food sources in particular?

  9. I would confidently expect that your assumptions about wholefoods are correct. In any event, under the EU’s “GM Food and Feed Regulation”, any foodstuff being sold in the UK (or anywhere else in the EU) which contains GMOs must state so clearly on the labelling.

    In the USA, consumers do not have this protection. Recently, a number of US states have been holding referendums of their citizens on the question of whether foods containing GMOs should be required to declare it on the label. Each vote has seen a fierce, well funded “no” campaign, heavily subsidised by Monsanto and other GM companies. You would think that if they truly believed in their products they’d be happy to let consumers know what they are eating.


  10. Thank you so much for engaging with me Steve!

    I did some more research because the Business Standard article puzzled me — since I know that Bt cotton growing continues in full swing across the country (80%-90% of all cotton grown is transgenic). It turns out that some very important context was left out of it. Only two varieties of cotton were banned out of many sold by Mahyco. Also there are indigenous companies now also selling Bt cotton. (As an aside, the farmer in Karnataka I am in touch with was somehow able to obtain even the banned seeds, although at a premium. He says he has gotten great yield from it for this season.)

    These two varieties seemed to have performed badly in a few districts due to a mirid bug infestation. This in itself is not surprising, since Bt protects against the bollworm, not the mirid bug. As one of the farmers I emailed said, this is a problem of not rotating crops, not so much the seed. The regular push-and-pull of nature. It also shows that there is government oversight, which is a good thing.

    Conventional cotton has its own very major problem of bollworm infestation. As I said, many farmers had given up on growing cotton entirely.

    In any case, I completely agree that neither Monsanto nor any other corporation should ever be allowed to make policy. I think this debate is wider than that — it is about biotechnology, should farmers use it or not? There are many valid arguments for and against, but I know that for most farmers, higher yield = livelihood. Higher yield is the reason most of them have adopted Bt cotton.

    Some articles I used for reference:
    And personal emails with farmers.

    • The bottom line, Aneela, is that if you wish to support the use of GMOs, that is entirely your choice. I do not, because I am an advocate of organic growing techniques, and to me the two are totally incompatible.

      Whilst organic farming techniques rely upon practices that restore, maintain and enhance both the soil and the ecosystem, GMOs – as you have so clearly illustrated – are principally about yield, without regard to the environmental ramifications.

      In most cases increased yields from the use of GMOs have been very modest indeed, and they have come at an enormous environmental cost – for example, on average GMO farmers use 26% more toxic pesticides per acre than “conventional” (i.e. non-organic) agriculture. GMOs are often created specifically to withstand the effects of harmful pesticides, the genetic material of the plant having been manipulated in order to tolerate a higher amount of toxic chemicals.

      Incidentally, your research should have told you that the problem with bt cotton is not solely with the mirid bug – even Monsanto has itself admitted (in a report to India’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee) that in some areas pink bollworm has now developed resistance to its bt cotton.

      We do, at least agree on one thing – that Monsanto should not be allowed to make policy. That is not a view that the company itself would subscribe to, however, after all it spends many millions of dollars each year on lobbyists and lawyers, on “sponsorship” of politicians, on funding “friendly” research and in underwriting pro-GMO campaign groups.


Leave a Reply