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Food in the 'Hood

Candy from the Field*: The Sweet Potato – Part I

* These words are the English translation of the Cajun expression, “bon bon du close.”

Vendors in 16th century London enticed their customers with candied slices of sweet potato, a popular snack among the wealthy and titled classes. Today, by contrast, the once-luxurious root vegetable is now a basic foodstuff on which many of the Third World poor rely for sustenance and nourishment.

Not at all related to the common white potato, the sweet potato is a member of the morning glory family. The only food plant in this group, the vegetable is actually a swollen storage root, a storehouse of nutrients. The ordinary potato, on the other hand, is not technically a root, but a subterranean tuber.

The sweet potato, like its twining, climbing kin, spreads its vines over the ground within a few weeks of planting. (The Latin name for the morning glory family comes from convolvulus or “twine around.”) They look like “spinach,” Las Casas, an early Spanish chronicler of the Americas, remarked of the New World plants. In the Philippines and in other countries, the stems and heart-shaped leaves are eaten like greens. To the Filipino, the sweet potato vine is a godsend because it is one of the few leafy vegetables to survive during floods and monsoons.

An ancient crop, possibly the oldest in the New World, the sweet potato grew wild in what is now Peru by 8000 B.C. at the latest. Remains of the root were found in a cave dating back to that time. Many centuries later, Spaniards exploring the West Indies found the batata, a word they borrowed from the Indians, growing far from its birthplace.
During his stay in Hispaniola (today’s island shared by  Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Columbus in 1492 mistook the curved vegetable for the niames, the yam he had first seen on the west coast of Africa. The potato reminded the mariner of a carrot. Its taste recalled the chestnut. Other observers likened the root to a turnip.

Another variety of sweet potato, the aje, was starchier and drier than the batata. Enjoyed by the Arawaks, the native Indians, it was much less popular with the Spaniards.

The white-fleshed vegetable, less sweet than its relative, is now the sweet potato of choice in Latin America. The boniato (meaning “sweet and harmless,” according to food writer Elizabeth Schneider), as it is now known, can be transformed into savory and sweet dishes. A famous one in the Caribbean is the boniatillo, a festive sweet potato purée with a citrus and cinnamon flavor. In Latin markets in the U.S., the boniato today is displayed in bins along with other curious-looking root vegetables, one of a plethora of “tropicals” exported for nostalgic ethnics.

The Spaniards reveled in the moister, honeyed root. Oviedo y Valdes, a writer and adventurer, sampled it and imagined an almond treat from his country. “A batata well cured and prepared is just like a marzipan.” The writer, Las Casas, remarked that a roasted sweet potato tasted as if it had been dipped in a jar of jam.

Other accounts of Columbus’s voyages expressed similar elation about the batata. “When eaten raw as in salads they taste like parsnips; when roasted like sugary chestnuts; when cooked with pork you would think you were eating squash,” observed a passenger on his second expedition in 1493. “You will never eat more delicious … soaked in the milk of almonds. It is a dish which lends itself to all the culinary arts and requirements of gourmets.”

“Seeds have been sent to Spain, so that our world might not lack their beneficial plant and its great variety of gustatory sensations,” the passenger’s letter continued. On their trips back to the mother country from the Americas, ships stocked their holds with sweet potatoes.

When he returned to Spain, Columbus introduced sweet potatoes to his patrons, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who may well have planted them in their court gardens. Planted in the warm climes of southern Spain, sweet potatoes prospered.

The Spanish aristocracy adored the sweet potato. It was considered superior to the papa, the pedestrian white potato. The common white tuber had a simple task, to quench the hunger of the poor and servile. The sweet root had loftier uses. It made wonderful conserves and other treats for the elites.

The conquistadors happened on the papa being cultivated by farmers in the Andes. They were shocked that the subsistence crop provided for the elemental needs of the Indians. Compared to their bread, they regarded the Incan potato as a paltry starch.

Moreover, unlike the white potato, which grew on the altiplano, the frigid, unforgiving highlands of Peru, the batata thrived in the tropical soil of the West Indies. Its association with the “lush” lowlands of the Caribbean gave the sweet potato a cachet the papa could never attain, historian Larry Zuckerman suggests.

Next month, Part II will continue the saga of the sweet potato as it journeys to England and France, Asia, Polynesia, and North America.

Succulent Sweets

Henry’s (1704 U St., NW; tel., 265-3337). This shop has been dispensing delicious sweet potato pies since 1968.

Inti (1825 18th St., NW; tel., 797-0744). Sweet potato fries are a recent addition to the menu of this Adams Morgan Peruvian restaurant.

Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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