I picked it up very carefully with my chopsticks. If it were not for the soft tempura batter on the outside to give me some leverage, the supple slice of sweet potato would have slipped through the slick sticks. It got me thinking. Do sweet potatoes have a Japanese heritage?
This ugly, tuberous root vegetable piled high on grocers’ shelves became popular in the islands of the Pacific Ocean, spreading from Polynesia to Japan and consequently it became popular in many favourite dishes in Japan such as tempura. Who would have known?
But all sweet potatoes are not the same, explains Nick VanBerlo of Berlo’s Best Sweet Potatoes. “We grow predominantly the orange flesh varieties but we are growing more of the triple skin, white flesh varieties for the Asian community”. Nick, along with his brother Peter and father Peter Senior, own Canada’s largest sweet potato farm in Simcoe, Ontario. Berlo’s Best produces a whopping 20 million pounds of sweet potatoes annually from 1,000 acres of repurposed tobacco land.
If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering how that’s possible. How could one farm grow so much of one vegetable that is traditionally relegated to Thanksgiving and Christmas use? “Not any more”, explains Nick, “people eat it year round because of the intense Vitamin A content,” he boasts. I checked it out and the vitamins and minerals found in a sweet potato are huge! Some resources even go so far as to call it a ‘superfood’.
Simcoe is a relatively warm area where peaches and grapes grow. It has warm days, cool nights and a longer growing season that encourages richer flavours; perfect conditions for growing sweet potatoes, which is typically a warm weather crop. It means that sweet potatoes grown here have a higher Brix level (a measurement of sweetness).
So Ontario grows a sweeter, sweet potato with richer flavours – good to know. But Nick likes to talk about eating them more than growing them. Peeled or unpeeled (for extra fibre), he always looks forward to his wife’s sweet potato chili or sweet potato hash browns. He rhymes off more ways to use sweet potatoes – from topping on Shepherd’s Pie to marrying them with curry, sweet potato soup, and as he often does, adding leftover sweet potatoes to a salad.
At country fairs you’ll see sweet potatoes roasted whole in their jackets and drizzled with maple syrup. In restaurants, sweet potato fries outsell traditional potato fries or they are sliced, battered and deep fried into tempura – yum. You can make mashed sweet potatoes with garlic and Parmesan cheese, fry them into crispy chips, or take whole sweet potatoes and load them with anything you want for a complete meal. Even vegans prefer sweet potatoes to make dozens of dishes from sweet potato and corn cakes to sweet potato noodles and even sweet potato meatballs!
Because of their high sugar content, sweet potatoes can also be used as a dessert. They can be substituted for pumpkin in any pie recipe or use the flavour for a delicious twist on classics such as Crème Brulee or Bread Pudding. Just cut down on the sugar when substituting with sweet potato in recipes for sweet potato bread, brownies and muffins – now doesn’t that just make us all feel better?
by Lynn Ogryzlo
Lynn Ogryzlo is a food, wine and travel writer, international award winning author and regular contributor to Look Local Magazine. She can be reached for questions or comments at www.lynnogryzlo.ca