Samui Wining & Dining
Knowing your Onions

Or, in this case, knowing your sweet potatoes.


Page-24It’s most certainly not an onion. And it’s not even a potato. Despite its name, the sweet potato is not even related to the potato. It’s a root, not a tuber, and belongs to the morning-glory family. Many parts of the plant are edible, including the leaves, roots and vines, and varieties exist with a wide range of skin and flesh colour, from white to yellow-orange and deep purple.

      Sweet potato is one of the world’s most important food crops in terms of human consumption, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Asia, and the Pacific Islands. First domesticated more than 5,000 years ago in Latin America, it’s grown in more developing countries than any other root crop. The plant grows in marginal conditions, and requires little labour or chemical fertilizers. It also provides inexpensive, high-protein fodder for animals. As sweet potato is a warm-weather vegetable that requires a long frost-free growing season, it’s an ideal crop for the tropics.

      Sweet potatoes have a creamy texture and a sweet-spicy flavour that makes them ideal for savoury dishes. Two types are available, one with bright orange flesh, and the other with pale cream flesh. They’re sometimes referred to as ‘yams’ in the USA – although strictly speaking, that’s a different vegetable, but they’re often mistakenly grouped together.

      These root vegetables are rich in fibre, vitamins A, C and B6, and are an excellent source of carbohydrates. The orange-fleshed variety is also rich in beta-carotene. Sweet potatoes are traditionally baked, roasted or mashed, but they can also be added to risotto, pasta or curry. For their ornamental value, with pretty purple and white flowers and heart shaped leaves, sweet potatoes are often grown as ground cover or in hanging baskets, in planters and even in bottles of water in the kitchen.

     Here in Thailand, the light sweet potato is called ‘manthet si kaaw’ and the purple one called ‘manthet si muang’. The pale sweet potato has a thin, light yellow skin and a pale yellow flesh. Its flavour is not sweet and, when cooked, its flesh is dry and crumbly, much like a white baking potato. The darker variety has a thicker, dark orange skin and a vivid orange, sweet flesh that is much moister when cooked.

       Around the world, you’ll find seven major varieties of sweet potatoes: Jersey, Kotobuki (Japanese), Okinawan (Purple), Papa Doc, Beauregard, Garnet, Jewel, and Covington. The last four varieties are regionally (yet erroneously) called yams in the USA. Sweet potatoes are also known as kumara in New Zealand, batatas or boniatos in South America, umala by Samoans, and uala by native Hawaiians. Kumara was a staple of the Maori people in New Zealand prior to the arrival of Europeans, and is popular throughout the Pacific region.

         Sweet potatoes became popular very early in the islands of the Pacific Ocean, spreading from Polynesia to Japan and the Philippines. One reason for their popularity is that they were a reliable crop, even when others failed because of typhoon flooding. They’re featured in many favourite dishes in Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and other island nations. Indonesia, Vietnam, India, and some other Asian countries are also large sweet potato growers and exporters. However, Thailand only grows enough for local consumption. You’ll find sweet potatoes in the markets year-round, and when buying, select firm roots, with no holes from insects, and handle carefully to prevent bruising. Sometimes they’re round, oval or even misshapen, but the shape isn’t as important.

         Store your sweet potatoes in a dry, cool bin, but do not refrigerate, as this will result in a hard core and an undesirable taste when cooked. However, cooked sweet potato keeps well in the fridge, and most sweet potato dishes freeze well.

         Like regular potatoes, sweet potatoes are always eaten cooked, but their sweet flavour makes them more versatile. They can be used in a wide variety of dishes, both savoury and sweet, and pair well with cinnamon, honey, lime, ginger, coconut and nutmeg. Enjoy them in desserts, breads and muffins, puddings and custards, casseroles, stews or croquettes. And of course, most Americans will not feel that their Thanksgiving spread is complete without a sweet potato pie.

         To prepare sweet potato, wash well to remove any sand, and then sauté, bake or boil until slightly soft. If boiled, drain immediately. Sweet potatoes can be fried like regular potatoes to produce chips, or sliced and baked in the oven like hot potato chips or wedges. A particularly easy yet delicious way to cook them, is to simply rub with butter or olive oil and coarse salt, wrap in tin foil, and place on the hot coals of the barbecue (or in the oven) until soft when pierced. To serve, remove from the foil, cut a cross on the top, and add a big dollop of butter. Delicious!

         It doesn’t matter how you like your sweet potato prepared, but knowing that this tasty root vegetable is as nutritious as it is delicious, makes all the more reason to enjoy it.


Rosanne Turner


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