The World Needs More Tornado Potatoes

The tornado potato is quintessential street food, and it should be everywhere.

Every year in August, a few streets in my neighborhood are blocked off to celebrate the Thai New Year Songkran Festival. Hollywood Boulevard becomes absolutely flooded with people meandering about in the sweltering heat, most of them holding grilled skewers of beef, salmon, or octopus. The road is bookended by Muay Thai kick boxing near an alcohol tent and a beauty pageant on the Western end. One stand serves up chicken roti with sweet vinegar and vegetables while another slings mango sticky rice. Southeast Asian street food is front and center at the Songkran Festival, and the event is one of the many delicious perks of living in Thai Town. Songkran is also the first time I ever tried a tornado potato, a stunning and delicious food on a stick that I hope makes waves again this year.

The tornado potato, explained

A nifty thing about being a disciplined professional who keeps a daily food journal is that I can flip all the way back to August 28, 2022, and see exactly what I ate that day. In addition to the salmon skewer, octopus skewer, and chicken roti I ate at the Songkran Festival, my tasting notes on the potato whirl, aka the tornado potato, read exactly as follows:


"Fuck me all the way up, potato whirl. God damn!" (This is accompanied by a hand-drawn smiley face.) 

This is how all tasting notes should read. No words like "earthy," "fatty," or "delicate." Just a pure, organic expression of love written by somebody half drunk and sunbaked.

So what fueled my expletive-filled description of the tornado potato? In short, it's just remarkable street food. The potato whirl is fantastical in shape, but its simplistic taste and texture are equally impressive. Tornado potatoes are swirl-cut, stretched-out potatoes skewered on a stick and deep-fried in oil, then sprinkled snowstormed with dry seasoning like garlic parmesan or sweet chili.

On this particular day last year, I picked the crispy, tender garlic and cheese potatoes off of the long wooden skewer with my teeth like I was trying to extract every last morsel of meat from a chicken wing. I distinctly remember how these potatoes had a layer of fatty, sticky skin that made me think of fried chicken. So sticky, in fact, that the potato skin adhered to the wooden skewer itself. When a vegetable presents itself like meat? That's how you know you've got a winner.


Why tornado potatoes should be everywhere

Though it might look silly, I do believe the presentation of the tornado potato is ultimately the more practical way to enjoy fried potatoes outdoors. I much prefer walking around a festival with a giant stick, not cradling a paper boat full of rapidly sogging french fries. The tornado potato is all upside. My fellow Americans, I ask you: Why are we not embracing the tornado potato more fully?


Though the tornado potato is the type of food that simply feels American, like something you would get at a state fair, it's actually South Korean in origin. It was originally developed by Jeong Eun Suk of Agricultural Hoeori Inc. Perusing various articles on the topic, it seems that tornado potatoes "gained popularity" (then why do I see them so rarely?) in America sometime around 2007–2010. This NPR segment from 2009 notes that the spuds were "taking boardwalks by storm" in New Jersey.

The fact that America doesn't have the same kind of vibrant street food scene as Seoul or Bangkok might be what has hindered this whirly potato's visibility in the States. Still, we do have plenty of boardwalks, piers, festivals, and state fairs, and the tornado potato needs to be at every damn one of them.


In addition to the awesome flavor and presentation, the process of tornado-fying a potato is thrilling to watch. The machine that makes the spiral is an amazing piece of technology that completely dwarfs the potato puncher in excellence. You can watch a video of the spiral machine here, in which a man peels part of a potato, inserts it into a machine, hits a button, and voila! Out comes a perfectly spiraled potato ready to be poked on a stick and stretched out like a potato accordion along the lengthy wooden skewer. Magical and mesmerizing.

This potato swirl on a stick then gets dipped into a thin batter (I'm guessing flour, water, and spices) to lend the final product extra texture. I've watched many videos of the preparation, and the batter seems to be a crucial step. The potatoes are then fried until crispy and golden brown; afterwards, they're transferred to a seasoning station to be sprinkled with the flavorings of your choice. The seasoning blends largely mimic wing flavors—I'm telling you, fried chicken wings is oddly the flavor profile here—with options like parmesan garlic, spicy, ranch, onion, cheese, and honey. That just scratches the surface of all the dry seasonings one could add to a potato whirl. The sky's the limit.


As any good chef knows, potatoes need to be seasoned right when they're done frying. This is one of fast food's biggest failings (ahem, In-N-Out). Tornado potatoes, by default, face a barrage of seasoning mere seconds after they come out of the fryer. I love that this food is treated like a blank canvas for flavor; the seasoning adheres to every curve of the potato, providing a full blast of flavor with every bite.

I can't wrap my head around the idea that there aren't more tornado potatoes here in America. Sure, they probably eat up a lot of fryer space and aren't all that practical for fast food restaurants to produce. But, damnit, it's the perfect street food, and therefore needs to be represented at every outdoor festival in the country. If I'm elected, every man, woman, and child in America will be holding a potato whirl this summer. It's the fried food on a stick this country needs.