Casseroles and pies. Slow cooked or air fried. Baked or ice cream. The sweet potato goes everywhere.
Consider this: it’s hard to keep track of sweet potatoes’ many names. In Puerto Rico, Columbia, and Brazil they’re batata; Japan calls them satsumaimo; Mexicans love el camote; and the French have patate douce. Israelis eat sweet potato latkes; Thais sip sweet potato soup; and Koreans adore sweet potato noodles. Americans love everything sweet potato – especially on Thanksgiving.
How did sweet potatoes become the sixth most important food crop in the world – whatever you call them?
Most assume that sweet potatoes are a relative of regular potatoes. Wrong. They belong to different botanical families. It’s like calling a best friend “bro” – you might love him but there’s no genetic connection.
According to CIP, the International Potato Center, the sweet potato is “a storage root” not related to the regular potato, which is a tuber (thickened stem).
Yams creep into this picture too. You may think they’re a type of sweet potato. No deal. Sweet potatoes originated in South America. Yams, with their bark-like skin, came from Africa – even if your favorite grocery store likes to use the same name for both. Those roots never crossed. See real yams below.
Some experts believe that the mix-up came from early settlers who called softer sweet potatoes yams. Others maintain that African slaves called them yams because sweet potatoes looked like what they ate in their homelands.
Either way, the roots go even deeper than sweet potato pie.
The sweet potato plant grew wild in Central and South America. Gerald Paul, in Many Eats, believes that “the modern sweet potato likely originated between Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and Venezuela – spread through human influence.”
How did those deep roots circle the globe?
Let’s look at the guy who brought them to Europe. He might sound familiar: Christopher Columbus. Europe loved that discovery.
In sweet potato history, Columbus arrived late in the game.
Researchers found fossil remains of sweet potatoes long before 1492 when “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Like over 5000 years ago – before the Spanish Conquistadores even set foot in the new world.
The big mystery is that in the 1700s Captain Cook found sweet potatoes in the South Pacific.
How did the sweet potato travel over 6,000 miles from South America to Polynesia without airplanes or cruise ships?
There are a lot of theories. Some are simple – seeds flew with birds or pieces floated on the ocean. Then there are those romantic ideas – not always proven but loved by most.
In 1947, Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, a descendant of Vikings, set out to prove his theory that ancient humans travelled across the Pacific Ocean from Polynesia to Peru. He piloted a 45-foot balsa wood raft called Kon Tiki. Five men joined Heyerdahl on the trip that was dubbed “The greatest sea adventure of our time.” They left from Callao, Peru. It took 101 days and 4,300 miles. Below is the raft from the Kon Tiki Museum, Oslo, Norway.
The Kon Tiki ran aground on a coral reef in Raroia, Polynesia. They were a success, demonstrating that South Americans could have journeyed to the South Pacific by raft. Everyone was safe – but the debate remained. Books, films, and TV still couldn’t definitively prove Heyerdahl’s theory.
Until the sweet potato.
Modern researchers analyzed the DNA of sweet potatoes from Asia and the Americas. Dr. Caroline Rouiller, an evolutionary biologist from France, led the study. “There’s been many kinds of evidence – linguistic and archeological – for contact between these two peoples,” she wrote, “but the sweet potato is most compelling.”
Dr. Pat Kirch, an archeologist at the University of Berkeley, California agreed. According to NPR, he reported that the Polynesians had sophisticated, doubled-hulled canoes – like very large catamarans (below) – “which could carry 80 or more people and be out to sea for months.”
A lot bigger than a balsa wood raft.
The idea is mind-boggling. But so are sweet potato fries.
Today, the world produces 88.9 metric tons or over 195,000 pounds of sweet potatoes every year.
North Carolina’s official vegetable is the sweet potato. February is National Sweet Potato Month. Sweet potatoes come in beige, orange, pink, purple, red, violet, white, and yellow skins. Guinness World Records claims the heaviest sweet potato weighed almost 82 pounds. Amazon boasts over 1,000 results for sweet potatoes and 222 costumes, including a tee shirt that reads “pretend I’m a sweet potato” and a “little sweet potato” baby bib.
Roast, grill, mash, boil . . . top with marshmallows, fry, or use in your favorite recipe – sweet potatoes are the jackpot of superfoods.
Enjoy some deep roots today.