Before diving into our intercontinental tour of the many-splendored sweet potato, let’s take a minute to get to know Ipomoea batata.
First, we need to get to the bottom of the difference between sweet potatoes and yams. While both tubers are flowering plants (i.e., angiosperms, for you aspiring horticulturists out there), yams are more closely related to the lily family, while sweet potatoes are members of the morning-glory clan.
Then, of course, there’s the subject of mistaken sweet-potato identity. Yams, native to Africa, were a staple of the diets of Africans who were enslaved and brought to these shores. They called the native American sweet potatoes yams because of their similar taste and appearance. The USDA has further confused matters by requiring that all Ipomoea batatas be labeled yams, but the words “sweet potatoes” must be included somewhere on the sign or packaging, too.
Confused yet? Well, here’s a quick and easy way to tell your yam from your sweet potato: The thin-skinned, rosy specimens found in most markets are sweet potatoes; the darker, thicker-skinned spuds found mostly in international markets are yams.
Now that we’ve gotten all of that out of the way, let’s get into the sweet potato. We’re all well acquainted with the pies and fries in which this tuber excels, but its versatility runs much, much deeper. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to delve into some of the sweet potato’s lesser-known, globe-trotting iterations available in our fair city.
Candied yams are de rigueur this time of year, but in Mexico there’s another kind of candied sweet potato. At Variedades Veracruzana (918 Washington Ave., 215-271-2991), a selection of jewel-like fruits and vegetables are displayed alongside the checkout counter. Jasmine Garcia tells us that camote — slices of sweet potato and pumpkin slowly cooked in white sugar — are a popular treat available from October to December. The earthy, bright-orange, crystalized slices glitter, retaining that unique sweet-potato creaminess with a bit of sugary crunch.
It’s virtually impossible to find a Philly bar without at least one pumpkin beer on tap in the fall, but at Vault Brewing (10 S. Main St., Yardley, 267-573-4291, vaultbrewing.com) they’re doing seasonal brews a little differently. Co-owner James Cain explains why they’ve forgone pumpkin: “Sweet potatoes are much easier to work with and you can actually get flavor out of them,” he says. Taking advantage of the brewpub’s copper-clad, wood-fired oven, each batch of Sweet Potato Pale Ale begins with 100 pounds of roasted sweet potatoes that are peeled, mashed and added to the brew along with vanilla, cinnamon, molasses and nutmeg. The result is a nitro-carbonated beer with a thick, creamy head that Cain likens to a dollop of whipped cream on a slice of sweet-potato pie.
Other sippable sweet potatoes make their way to the bar by way of shochu, a Japanese distillate brewed with barley, rice, buckwheat and (you guessed it) sweet potatoes. Christian Ruppert, bar manager at Old City’s Zento (132 Chestnut St., 215-925-9998, zentocontemporary.com), has put together one of the more comprehensive shochu lists in town, including Kaikouzu, a sweet-potato shochu from Japanese sake maker Ozeki. Served by the carafe, on the rocks or with a splash of water, Kaikouzu is a little higher-proof than many shochus (due to the sugar content of the sweet potatoes, no doubt). “It’s mellow and fragrant with a rich flavor. You can definitely taste elements of sweet potato,” Ruppert says. The sweetness of the shochu makes it a natural match for spicy, tangy foods, particularly the V22, a spicy California roll topped with sea eel tempura and crunchy tobiko.
Sweet potatoes make appearances all over Korean menus. Meals can begin with gogumasun namul, blanched sweet potato shoots salted and tossed with sesame oil and served chilled as part of a banchan (side dish) spread. Then there is jap chae, a Korean cooking-for-a-crowd staple made with dangmyeon — transparent cellophane noodles made from sweet-potato starch. At Sammy Chon’s K-Town BBQ (911 Race St., 215-574-1778, ktownbbq.com), the delicate noodles are stir-fried with thinly sliced beef, onions, scallions, sesame oil, soy and sesame seeds for a warm starter.
The yellow-and-green signage in front of Le Mandinque (6620 Woodland Ave., 215-726-0543) boasts a menu of African specialties like fufu, attiéké (grated, fermented cassava pulp) and sweet potato greens. At La Mandinque, $10 gets you a takeout container filled with long-braised sweet potato greens studded with chunks of bone-in chicken and beef and a serious portion of steamed white rice. A cook at Le Mandinque explained that the greens get their distinct earthy spiciness from a blend of housemade hot sauce and Maggi bouillon seasoning cubes, a staple in West African cooking.
In our search for more out-of-the-pie-shell sweet-potato preparations, we came across a curious item in the vegetable section of the menu at the Chinatown Malaysian spot Penang (117 N. 10th St., 215-413-2531). Kang kung belacan is broken down to “sauteed convolus with spicy Malaysian shrimp-paste sauce.” Convol-what? As it turns out, convolus is a member of the morning-glory family, just like the sweet potato and its greens. At Penang, these sweet-potato greens cousins are flash-sauteed in a wok with chilis, soy and semi-stinky (but entirely delicious) dried shrimp paste, making for a vibrant side that retains all of the green goodness of the convolus along with a serious umami punch and bright red chili heat.
So, there you have it: From brew and booze to noodles and greens, the humble sweet potato is certainly a multifaceted and unlikely workhorse of a tuber.
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