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Sweet Potatoes

Sweet Potato information, history and recipes

 

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February

2006

 

 

The sweet potato (genus Ipomoea)  belongs to the  Convolvulaceae family which includes ornamental flowering plants such as Morning Glory.  The most popular edible species Ipomoea batatas I. batatas is a crop plant which produces large, tapered, starchy, sweet-tasting tuberous roots.  They have a relatively smooth, usually reddish skin and its flesh can be white, yellow, orange or purple depending on the variety.

 

Note from the Editor

Before starting the usual editorial I feel very strongly that clarification is required regarding its name.

 

For some reason (mainly) in the USA, sweet potato is also called Yam … it is NOT A YAM. It’s entirely unrelated both botanically and in taste.   Being from West Indian parentage, I have grown up eating both yam and sweet potatoes on a fairly regular basis….I still do, which is why I feel so bewildered at how anyone can make such an error.  Certainly, if I was expecting sweet potatoes and someone served me up Yam instead I’d be very disappointed. Read about YAM.

 

Origin and History of Sweet Potatoes

 

Archaeological evidence shows that sweet potatoes are native to South America are have been cultivated there for over 5000 years. In fact, fossilised sweet potatoes found in the Andes region have been dated between 8,000 and 10,000 years old.

 

The Incas and Maya civilisations are known to have grown several varieties: some varieties were grown for food and other varieties were grown to extract colouring materials for artists. It is also known to have been cultivated in Polynesia as early as 1200 A.D. and was already a principle food source of the Maoris in New Zealand by the time of Captain Cook arrived there 1769.

 

Although the sweet potato is native to South America, its spread to other parts of the world including  the Caribbean was rapid although exactly how they spread is still an issue which causes much debate amongst geneticists and archaeologists.

 

Many Europeans feel the sweet potato is a relatively new import to Europe, however it may interest you to know that Columbus introduced them to Europe from the West Indies in the 1400's  and that they were cultivated in Spain as early as 1500 A.D.   Furthermore, Henry VIII (he of many wives fame) is purported to have been extremely fond of them, having received some as part of Catherine of Aragon’s dowry. It is also said that he’d set an ongoing competition for any gardener in England who could grow them successfully – a task no one managed.

 

It is believed that Spanish explorers took the sweet potato to the Philippines and East Indies, from where it easily spread to India, China, and Malaya, probably with the assistance of Portuguese traders. By 1648 they had been introduced to North America  and were possibly the most important single crop in sustaining Americans through such difficult times such as the American Revolution and Civil War.  It gained similar recognition in n China, where the sweet potato sustained the nation through a number of droughts which devastated native grain staples.

 

In the 18th century, sweet potatoes were included in many European agricultural annotations being described as a versatile crop which could be prepared in numerous ways and fed to humans and animals alike and although they seemed to have dropped from favour for quite some time, certainly in the UK at least, they can now be found on many supermarket shelves.

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 Though orange-fleshed varieties are the most common today, the white fleshed types were once considered the finest. Depending on where you live, you can get them,  but the last time I saw one, it had been bought from a market in London which sold a lot of ethnic foods.....including YAMS.

 

 

Cultivation of Sweet Potatoes

 

The main consideration when growing sweet potatoes is climate conditions. In order to produce a reasonable crop, the plants require a long and hot growing season (requiring an average temperature of 24 °C) with absolutely no risk of frost during the growing period: most sweet potato varieties require at least 4 frost-free months. The second important consideration is space. Although it is possible to get “bush” varieties, the natural habit of the plant is to trail along the ground: it often spreads 4 feet in all directions.

In short, if you don’t live in a relatively warm climate, it’s probably not worth you attempting to grow them. For those of you who do have the right conditions, here are some basic instructions on growing them.

Unless you have very sandy soil, make ridges about 20cm/8 inches high and 30cm/1 foot wide with at least 90cm/3 feet between the rows. Growing from seed is not recommended - the best method is to grow from small plants (vine cuttings) which are achieved much in the same way as strawberry runners. They are often referred to as “slips”. Choose an area which gets full sun throughout the day and plant the slips 12 to 18 inches apart along the raised ridges setting them to the depth of the first leaves so that several “joints” are actually underground. Firm the soil and water generously for a few days.

Keep the area as weed free as possible and water in hot dry periods to increase yields. Do not over water as they don’t like wet or waterlogged soil and if you are planning to store any of the crop, don't give the plants any extra water at all late in the season. Apart from this there is little else to do until harvesting time.

Unlike ordinary potatoes, sweet potato vines don't dieback when they are ready to be harvested so the ridges have to be checked regularly for suitable roots at the required cooking stage. Harvest on a dry preferably overcast day. Allow the potatoes to dry on the ground surface for a couple of hours. Sort any damaged or bruised potatoes and use as soon as possible.

 

Sweet Potatoes in cooking
 

The Sweet Potato is said to be one of the most nutritionally complete foods. In addition its versatility makes it a must have vegetable. It can be boiled, baked or fried; used for savoury and sweet recipes including biscuits, breads, muffins, croquettes, pies and cakes as well as a welcome addition to soups, casseroles and stews, especially useful in vegetarian or vegan dishes.

 


Click here for lots of Sweet Potato Recipes

 

 

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