The Inscrutable Sweet Potato

Cooking Fresh Fall 2010 Issue

The Inscrutable Sweet Potato

By Dani Lind | Photos By Jim Klousia 0

To vegetable nerds like me, the history, folklore, nutrition and culinary potential of produce fascinate like nothing else. Everyone eats; we have always eaten—hence, agricultural development goes hand in hand with human development. Vegetables are so vibrant and nourishing and interesting, each one with a unique story.

This is the alluring tale of the Sweet Potato, a humble vegetable at first glance, but dig a bit deeper and you’ll find it has more character than the average tuber.

I (Y)am a Sweet Potato

The difference between a sweet potato and a yam is a mystery to most Americans. The sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is neither a yam (Dioscoreae genus, native to Africa) nor a potato (Solanum tuberosum, native to Peru). A member of the morning glory family native to tropical Central and South America, the sweet potato grows tuberous roots below a mass of flowering vines. It is one of the oldest vegetables known to man—traces of 10,000-year-old wild sweet potatoes have been found in Peruvian caves, and they've been cultivated by native South Americans for at least 5,000 years. Today, there are over 400 varieties of sweet potato grown around the world, varying in color from white to yellow, orange, red and purple. African yams, on the other hand, are bigger, heavier, starchier, generally white-fleshed and grow above ground.

The confusion between the two started in the U.S. in the middle of the last century. The common varieties of American sweet potatoes at that time were white-fleshed, so when a new variety of orange-fleshed sweet potato was introduced, the name "yam" was commercially applied in order to distinguish it from the others (even though yams are usually white-fleshed). The misnomer has continued to this day. Orange varieties have become ubiquitous and are still called yams, even though they are sweet potatoes, botanically.

Christopher Columbus first brought sweet potatoes back to Europe from the Americas in 1492, and from there they quickly spread to Africa, India, Southeast Asia and the Philippines. Yet when Europeans first made it to Polynesia in 1595, sweet potatoes genetically originating from Peru had already been a staple food there for hundreds of years—1,000- year-old carbonized remains have been found in the Cook Islands. Enter the greatest puzzle surrounding the sweet potato. How the heck did it get there?

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