Sunday, October 16, 2011

Harvest Ingredient 15: The Sweet Potato

Sweet potatoes are often said to be native exclusively to South America, because it is often recorded that they were supposedly encountered by Europeans for the first time there (Pizarro's "expedition" into the Incan Empire).  In actuality, they were, in fact, first tasted by Columbus' crew in 1492 in the Caribbean; and the earliest archaeological evidence of cultivation comes from what is now known as Central America and dates to about 2900 BC, but it could well have been earlier than that.  For example, sweet potato remnants in what is now Peru date back as 8000 BC!

This is the orange fleshed Sweet Potato, the most common type of the vegetable.

Though they look a lot like potatoes, they are not true potatoes.  They are a member of the Ipomoea family.  It is a very distant relative of the true potatoes in the nightshade family, and is, in fact, actually a member of a group of follower known to gardening enthusiasts as Morning Glory(s); which is immediately evident when the plant is is bloom.  And, if fact, some gardeners grow them for their beauty than as food.  They are even sold in some plant nurseries as "Tuberous Morning Glory," which makes me wonder, do people paying two prices for them in that context know that in the spring that can be bought much more cheaply at vegetable garden centers, or, even better, that you can just buy a sweet potato and sprout it yourself!!??  Botanically speaking they are not true tubers, but a kind of thick sweet root--for all intents they behave mostly like tubers, and often called such.  The "tubers" or roots actually come in a variety of colors, ranging from the well known orange, to white, to yellow to purple; though less wide spread, there are even varieties that range from pink to green.  The white sweet potato, indigenous to the Caribbean and coastal Central America is often sold by it's native name boniato, without most produce shoppers actually knowing that they are simply a white sweet potato.

Common Sweet Potato in bloom
 If Sweet Potatoes are not true potatoes, neither are they yams, which they get called a lot in the southern United States.  It is so common, in fact, the U.S. government requires by law anyone selling them as "yams" to also label them as "sweet potato."  True yams are native through the pacific, some parts of Asia and especially Africa.  True yams, which are often sold in U.S. markets as Name' are of the Dioscorea family, and can grow to truly enormous sizes!!

Orange Sweet Potato compared to a True Yam

There is a great deal of debate about this Native American cultivar's possible pre-Columbian presence in the south Pacific.  There had some fierce debate over whether this was actually the case, with very angry advocates on one side, and very angry detractors on the other.  On the one side there was a real need to prove pre-European contact with Native Americans and Pacific Islands and on the other a real need to try to snap people back to a conventional notion that in no way could such contact have taken place without the aid of large Europeans boats.  Polynesians themselves stated the the sweet potato was not brought to them by Europeans.  This debate was settled once and for all when a sweet potato was radiocarbon dated at 1000AD in the Cook Islands. How they came to be there is still a mystery; but think for a minute about the Polynesian inhabitants of Rapanui, better known as Easter Island off the coast of Chile.  With remnants of a kind of sweet potato variety dating back so far in that region, it stands to reason that Polynesians with their serious sea-faring culture and with the sweet potato that have been found in the south Pacific being of the kind that is easily propagated by vine clippings instead of seeds, they could have easily obtained them, even without trade.  However they came by them, it now estimated that the sweet potato started it's trek through Polynesia starting around 700 AD.  In New Zealand and Australia, sweet potatoes are most often sold by their Maori name Kumara, which is very close to the Quechua (Incan) word Kumar.

Below Are Two Examples Of The Sweet Potato In Moche Art (South America)

Europeans did introduce the sweet potato to the Philippines, where it has become an important tribal crop (kind of like Plantains have become in the Amazon).  They are known as Kamote (variously spelled Camote), which, AGAIN, comes from the Aztec Nahuatl camohtli  or xiucaohtli.  From there it spread to points north, south and west on the Asian continent.  It is a very popular vegetable and sweet amongst Native tribes in the southeastern US.  Again the history of the sweet potatoes travels is a bit of a mystery.  Most food historians have the sweet potato traveling into what is now the U.S. after colonization by way of Africa, like peanuts.  But the French claim that tribes they encountered in the south, including the Atakapa, Alabamu, Apaloossa and the Choctaw already possessed sweet potatoes when they arrived in their territory.  This actually makes some sense; the sweet potato was known to have a large range in what is now Mexico, it would have been easy for it to travel up through Texas and into native communities to the east.  Whatever the case, it is a much revered food for Native Americans in and from the south.

Purple Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are high in vitamin C and B6.  Depending on the color, they are also high in beta carotene, a source of Vitamin A.  Pink, green and yellow varieties are high in carotene, a precursor to Vit. A.  It is also high in iron and, surprisingly, calcium and provides a good source of protein.  The complex carbohydrates found in sweet potatoes also is of the sort that it is a good food for diabetics, especially Type 2 diabetes, because it not only stabilizes blood sugar levels, it has been shown to actually help with insulin resistance.  In Africa, it's consumption has been linked to better eye sight, due it's curing vitamin A deficiencies.  It is also extremely high in a whole host of micro-nutrients, including lecithin and tannins.  In 1992 the Center for Science in the Public Interest ranked it the most nutritious vegetable, finding it to be almost 100% higher in nutrients than regular potatoes.

Different colored sweet potatoes

If sweet potatoes are really good for you, then they are also extremely versatile.  Of course one of the most common ways to eat them is simply baked, they can also be mashed (alone or with other tubers), fried like French fries, candied, put into casseroles, and made into chips.  They make a traditional pureed soup.  Mashed they are put into baked goods, including muffins, pancakes, cookies, waffles and cakes, even pies.  Sweet Potato Bread is a very traditional Cherokee food.  They are made into savory cakes, like regular potatoes; and they can be shredded and made into hashed-browns.  Also traditionally, sliced sweet potatoes are fried in bacon grease.  In Hawaii it is made into a sweet pudding that is a traditional food at a Lu'au; in New Zealand it is baked in the traditional earthen oven or steamed with volcanic steam.  In the Philippines it is put into Adobo or into the strange fruit salad known as Halo-Halo.  They even flavor ice creams.  In Australia Kumara Chips are served with Sour Cream and Asian Sweet Chile Sauce.  In the Caribbean they top chicken pies.

In Africa they are dried and served as a breakfast food.  The young vines are eaten as a vegetable (it should be noted that you should know you sweet potatoes before consuming any of the vines, many are poisonous).  The Chinese have their own version of sweet potato soup, while in Japan they are often found in tempura dishes or made into a traditional Japanese dessert.  In Korea, they boiled or steamed, with young shoots being a traditional green, the starch is used to make cellophane noodles and in Seoul the local Pizza Hut even lists them as a topping. In Malaysia and Indonesia, they are often cooked with freshly made coconut milk; they also are batter fried and served with afternoon tea.  In India, of course they are curried, but also is a traditional break fast.  Tribes in Papua have completely embraced them as a very important traditional food.  In Spain they are roasted with chestnuts for All Souls Day, and in Venice they are very much enjoyed in the fall roasted or boiled.  The world over they are used as animal fodder, and in South America, they are part of a very old and important dye.  Truly, sweet potatoes are a very important gift from the New World to the rest.

Yellow Sweet Potato 
Ghost or White Sweet Potato

No comments:

Post a Comment