Produce Buzz Veggie of the Week: Sweet Potatoes.
A tropical tuber’s name causes confusion for many of us, but one of its original names might be a clue to a historical puzzle.
Wintertime is a perfect time to indulge in the vast array of root vegetables that are available when many other fruits and veggies disappear or become too pricey because of the cold. If you have never put together a hearty soup featuring potatoes, rutabagas, turnips, parsnips and onions, then you have missed one of winter’s most satisfying and nourishing meals.
But there is one root vegetable that has to be the undisputed star of the winter table—the deliciously sweet and flavorful sweet potato. In the U.S. most of our orange-fleshed featured veggie of the week are grown in North Carolina, California and Louisiana. But they were not originally native to these places. Most food historians believe they originated somewhere in Central America, in the region between the Yucutan Peninsula and Venezuela. But traces of this tuber have been found in Peru dating back to 8000 B.C.!
The sweet potato is grown extensively all over Central and South America and the Caribbean. In the islands it is called “batata” but in the Americas it is known as “camote” derived from the Native Americans who lived there before the Spanish arrived.
But one tribe of native peoples of Peru called the vegetable “kumar” and that leads to an interesting theory about prehistoric international travel to and from the continent of South America. Sweet potatoes are also found extensively all over the Polynesian islands and have been dated back to 1000 A.D. in the South Pacific. In most of these islands the root is called “kumara” or “kumala,” words strikingly similar to that from the Peruvian tribe. When did sweet potatoes arrive in the South Pacific and how? The Polynesians were well known to be excellent sailors, but until recently few historians have believed they could have sailed as far as South America in their primitive boats. But does the sweet potato contradict this scholarship? We may never know for sure, but it seems very probable and scientists and historians are starting to come on board.
But on another level, the name of our beloved wintertime starch has caused some confusion. Walk into a grocery store and you will most likely see these displayed under the banner of “Yams” rather than “Sweet Potatoes.” But according to botanists, what many call “yams” are not so. Yams are usually not orange fleshed, but white like the regular potato you know. They are dark brown on the outside and usually very rough in appearance. They are not as sweet and moist as a sweet potato, but their nutritional value is about the same, minus the heft amounts of beta carotene you get from the orange flesh of the sweet potato. And even though they have a lot of similarities, such as being tubers and growing underground, sweet potatoes and yams are from different families of plants. And neither is a real potato.
So even though they are often marketed as “yams” and people in certain parts of the country will always call them so, growers and shippers of sweet potatoes are required by the USDA to label them on boxes and packaging as “sweet potatoes.” But you can’t regulate the common vernacular, so we are under no delusions that our little article here is going to change what people have grown up calling them. And, frankly, that’s OK with us. Because, “a sweet potato by any other name would still taste as sweet.” Oh, wow! What a poetic phrase we created!
Great recipes for Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potato chili, sloppy joes or goat cheese anyone? Here are 36 delicious recipes that are a bit unusual from the usual sweet potato repertoire. But still most of them are almost dessert like, which is OK with us.
But the sweet potato is incredibly versatile and can do much more than desserts. So if you are looking for more savory options, this list of recipes should provide you with some great ones.
Check in with the Sweet Potato Experts
And if you prefer a British accent to tell you all about sweet potatoes here’s Jamie Oliver’s love sonnet to the tuber.
Sweet Potato Nutrition
Here’s the amazing nutritional value of the almighty sweet potato!