OUR NEWFOUND LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE SWEET POTATO: CREATIVE IDEAS FROM SALAD TO SPIRITS
Much of the rest of the world devours it almost daily and has done for centuries – or, in the case of Peru, millennia. Ugandans sun-dry it and serve it for breakfast with peanut sauce; the Chinese bake it and sell it in the streets; and in the United States no Thanksgiving dinner would be complete without it. Here in Britain, though, we’ve just discovered the sweet potato – and now we’re wondering how we ever managed without it.
Taking our cue from celebrities including Yotam Ottolenghi, Jamie Oliver and the Hemsley sisters, we can’t get enough of this vibrant tuber which, as well as being the perfect easy-to-cook comfort food, has the added virtue of counting as one of our five a day.
Supermarkets and growers are quickly adjusting to our newfound love affair with the sweet potato. M&S reports that sales have risen 76 per cent over the past year, and when it launched spiralised sweet potato tagliatelle in January, it sold out instantly. Sweet-potato fries, which have popped up here and there for a while, are increasingly popular. In a similar vein, Asda says sweet-potato sales have risen 46 per cent, while Waitrose says it’s selling six times as many as in 2010.
Most of the sweet potatoes we buy come from the United States, Africa or Spain. Farmers struggle to grow them here as they like a climate that’s dry, warm and frost-free. Recently, though, a British farmer with fields in Kent, Essex and Bedfordshire has successfully grown them for Asda by covering the crop with mulch to protect it from frost. Waitrose has recently started sourcing sweet potatoes from Jersey, famous for its Jersey Royal.
So popular has the sweet potato become that last year, for the first time, it appeared as a household staple in the Government’s Basket of Goods used to gauge spending. The older generation, reared on a daily diet of white potatoes (roasted, boiled or mashed), will be choking on their Sunday roasts.
The key to the sweet potato’s popularity is that it’s cheap, a doddle to cook and deliciously versatile. Bake it, mash it, roast it, grate it into a rosti, or use it as the star ingredient in a stew or soup (add spices and coconut milk to give it an Asian twist). Sweet-potato fries are fast replacing ordinary ones to accompany burgers or roasts. Or if you don’t fancy the deep-fried stuff, take a leaf out of Yotam Ottolenghi’s book Plenty by roasting wedges with ground coriander and chilli, and serving them with a lemongrass and lime crème fraîche. Ottolenghi’s NOPI restaurant in Soho also turns them into pancakes, partnered with yoghurt and date syrup, for breakfast. For novel supper dishes, try Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s sweet potato and peanut gratin, which includes chilli, lime and crunchy peanut butter to cut through the sweetness of the potatoes, or Dale Pinnock’s Thai-style tuna and sweet potato fishcakes, a slow-burn variation on the usual fishcake fare.
Sweet potatoes are also proving manna from heaven for those shunning gluten and/or sugar, who are increasingly using them in cakes, muffins, brownies and puddings. In the US, of course, a dessert from potato is nothing new – think candied or casseroled sweet potato at Thanksgiving. Or sweet potato pie, a favourite in America’s South.
A British sweet-potato importer, Garry Smith, has recently taken the humble vegetable to a higher level by coming up with a range of sweet-potato spirits (thesweetpotatospiritcompany.com). Inspired by what American moonshiners did with corn mash, he combines the rich sweet potato flesh with sugar beet, which he redistills in copper pots with kibbled sweet potato to produce a moonshine. He also uses the moonshine as the base of a raspberry liqueur and an orangecello.
The good news is that this cheery root, although higher in sugars than the regular potato, is richer in nutrients such as beta-carotene, which the body converts into Vitamin A. It’s also higher in fibre and in Vitamin C, and has a lower glycemic index rate, with the result that, unlike the regular potato, it’s deemed to qualify as one of our five a day.
We may be kidding ourselves, though, if we think simply changing to sweet potatoes will turn us into healthy eaters. “Switching from white potatoes to sweet potatoes is an easy win in terms of nutrition, but at the end of the day it depends on how you eat them,” says nutritionist Fiona Hunter. “If you deep-fry them or serve them with lots of butter, the health benefits become diluted. Eating sweet potatoes doesn’t mean we can stop eating health-giving greens such as cabbage and kale.”
Look closer at our recent “discovery” of the sweet potato, and you may get a feeling of déjà vu. That’s because the sweet potato hit our shores before the standard potato, so was actually the original potato. The first Europeans to taste sweet potatoes were members of Columbus’s expedition to Haiti, in 1492. They gave them their Haitian name, batata. On reaching Elizabethan England via Spain, the sweet flavour of what was dubbed the “Spanish potato” was an instant hit, with royals and aristocrats serving it as a delicacy in puddings and pies at their banquets and street vendors selling it in crystallised slices.
Sweet potato’s popularity was further enhanced by its reputation as an aphrodisiac. In his 1597 Herball, botanist John Gerard (who enjoyed his potato roasted, or boiled with prunes) suggests that it “comforts, strengthens and nourishes the body” while also “procuring bodily lust”.
When, later, the ordinary potato reached England, having been discovered by Europeans in South America in the 1530s, it was simply called “potato”, causing confusion that persists today. To differentiate them, the original orange tuber was eventually christened “sweet potato” while the new arrival became known as “potato”.
So our “discovery” of the sweet potato is in fact a rediscovery. The regular potato may have taken a mashing, but the sweet one can do no wrong, it seems. Cheap, delicious and (reasonably) healthy, it’s likely to be king of the veg rack for a while yet. For now, life is sweet.
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