“Sweeter than Sweet”

Although sweet potatoes are part of a recent health craze sweeping the globe, sweet potatoes or “kattala” have been a part of the Maldivian diet since time immemorial. We all grew up eating and appreciating this sweet and succulent vegetable. However, there are a few things about sweet potatoes that we might not be familiar with. This is why we, here at Taste, thought we would take an in-depth diver into this delicacy.

What are sweet potatoes?

First off, sweet potatoes are not really potatoes (they are distantly related though). Nor are they yams. They are part of the Bindweed or Morning Glory family, Convolvulaceae. They are root tubers. Root tubers store water and energy like starch and other carbohydrates, underground and draw upon these resources to feed the above-ground parts of the plant.

Sweet potatoes come in a variety of shapes and colors including beige, white, red, pink, yellow, orange and purple. Although Maldivians are familiar with only a couple of varieties, there are more of them in existence.

The origin of sweet potatoes

It has largely been assumed that the origins and domestication of the sweet potato occurred in Central or South America and was spread by the locals to the Caribbean and South America around 2500BCE. However, this might be in contest with the discovery recently of 57-million-year-old leaf fossils from eastern India being identified as being from the morning glory family, which includes sweet potatoes and many other plants.

Tips for buying and storing sweet potatoes

Pick up the sweet potato and take a close look at the skin. If there are any discolorations or cracks, then ditch them. A healthy sweet potato should be uniform in color and without any cracks in the skin.

Squeeze the sweet potato. If you feel any give, it could be a sign of rot. Make sure they are all nice and firm.

Store your sweet potatoes in a dry and cool place. Do not refrigerate them. They have a short shelf life so use them within a week or two.

How healthy are sweet potatoes?

Sweet potatoes are extremely beneficial to your health as they are high in fiber, vitamin C, potassium, Pantothenic Acid (vitamin B5), Niacin (vitamin B3), vitamin B6, manganese, magnesium and copper. Their orange color is derived from beta-carotene, which is a pigment and antioxidant.

Compared to their cousin, the white potato, they offer more vitamins and antioxidants. Despite their sweeter taste, they have a mildly lower glycemic index score (especially if you boil them). This makes them slower to digest.

However, the crowning glory of the nutritional values may be in its ample supply of vitamin A. Every sweet potato contains over double the value of your vitamin A daily requirement.

How to cook sweet potatoes

The method you use to cook a sweet potato strongly affects how it tastes. They contain an enzyme which enables the starch to break down into a sugar called maltose. Maltose is not as sweet as table sugar and you can control the sweetness by how you choose to cook the sweet potato.

A quick cooking method i.e. steaming them or cutting them into small pieces can reduce the sweetness of the dish. However cooking sweet potatoes slowly on low heat will allow that maltose-making enzyme more time to convert the starch into sugar. The sweet potato enzyme is activated once they reach around 135°F and stops working at around 170°F. (That’s 57° to 77°C). This gives you a lot of control over the ultimate sweetness of your sweet potatoes.

Words by Asy