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Sweet Potatoes, Mysterious Traveler

Did you know that the lack of clarity in how sweet potatoes arrived to the Pacific islands from Central and South America still puzzles scientists today?.

Scientists have recently sequenced DNA from sweet potatoes grown across the Pacific. What they found was that all sweet potatoes likely trace their ancestry back to one population located somewhere in the Caribbean. This is an important finding because it indicates they are all related species, and not just similar looking plants. It also suggests that there had to be some event that carried a sweet potato from South America to the islands of the Pacific before the time of colonization.

However, the sweet potato DNA also had a surprise in it. Analysis indicated that island sweet potatoes diverged from mainland sweet potatoes years ago, which could potentially mean two things. Whether humans may have traded a variety of sweet potato that has since gone extinct on the mainland, or that it wasn’t humans who carried the potato across the ocean. It is possible, although still debatable, that a sweet potato made the journey by way of another animal possibly as a seed in an animal’s belly.

Traditionally, researchers have been skeptical that a plant like a sweet potato could travel across thousands of kilometers of ocean. But in recent years, scientists have needed to recognize the signs that many plants have made the voyage, floating on the water or carried in bits by birds.

One of the sweet potatoes wild relatives traveled the Pacific, the scientists have found. One species, the Hawaiian moonflower, lives only in the dry forests of Hawaii but its closest relatives all live in Mexico.

As amazing and intriguing as these possibilities might seem, in my recent researched, I read several times, that the best way to plant sweet potatoes is with the actual sweet potato itself. As astonishing as it seems, the fact that colonizers found sweet potatoes in both regions of the world was amusing in itself, but it does paint a very clear picture that it might have been very well possible for Pacific aborigines and indigenous South Americans to have met and interacted with each other before the colonization time. One way to prove this theory is the fact that in Quechua language spoken in Peru and Bolivia, sweet potatoes are called “cumara” and in New Zealand, Aborigines have grown a sweet potato called “kumara”. Could it really be just mere coincidence?!. Another thought to ponder upon is the fact that the Aborigines had sophisticated, double-hulled canoes like very large catamarans which could carry 80 or more people and be out to sea for months. But Polynesians didn't just grab the potatoes and headed back home. There are clues that they may have introduced chickens to the South American continent while they were at it. So much to be thankful for, chicken and sweet potatoes. That is a rounded meal!.

Scientists have attributed the origins of sweet potatoes starting from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and ending in mouth of the Orinoco River in Venezuela. Although this plant has spread widely throughout the entire continent.

At the time of colonization, sweet potatoes were brought to Europe and from Europe it went further to the colonized nations. Today sweet potatoes are known world wide and have become a staple food in all the tropical regions of the globe.

Sweet potatoes in fact, are considered a super food. They are an excellent source of many key nutrients. They also contain antioxidants and are naturally low in sodium. Besides simple starches, raw sweet potatoes are rich in complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber and beta-carotene, including also vitamin B5, vitamin B6, potassium and manganese. When baked, small variable changes in micro nutrient density occur to include a 24% higher content of vitamin C. This is why one colonial physician called them the "vegetable indispensable."

In recent studies the nutritional value of sweet potatoes was ranked highest among several other foods. And as if the sweet potatoes were not good enough, their leaves are also edible and can be prepared like spinach or turnip greens. Sweet potato leaves and shoots are a good source of vitamins A, C, and B2, and an excellent source of lutein.

Have you ever tried eating the greens from the sweet potato?, I still have not but I am super curious to give them a try!. Here are some of the ways I found how other countries enjoy eating sweet potatoes.

Sun-dried slices and Sun-dried crushed root are a staple food for people in northeastern Uganda. The slices are mainly served for breakfast, eaten with peanut sauce. The crushed roots are mixed with cassava flour and tamarind to make atapa. People eat atapa with smoked fish cooked in peanut sauce or with dried cowpea leaves cooked in peanut sauce. Earth-baked roots are eaten as a snack anytime and is mostly served with tea or with peanut sauce. Similar uses are also found in South Sudan.

The young leaves and vine tips of sweet potato leaves are widely consumed as a vegetable in West African countries such as Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, as well as in northeastern Uganda in East Africa.

In Kenya, the Ministry of Agriculture has written a guide to using sweet potatoes in modern recipes. This includes uses both in the mashed form and as flour from the dried tubers to replace part of the wheat flour and sugar in baked products such as cakes, chapatis, mandazis, bread, buns and cookies. A nutritious juice drink also made from the orange-fleshed cultivars, and deep-fried snacks are also included in the recommendation from the Ministry.

In Egypt, sweet potato are a common street food in winter, when street vendors with carts fitted with ovens sell them to people passing time by the Nile or by the sea. The cultivars used are an orange-fleshed one as well as a white/cream-fleshed one. They are also baked at home as a snack or dessert, drenched with honey.

In Ethiopia, the commonly found cultivars are black-skinned and cream-fleshed, they are widely eaten boiled as a favored snack.

In South Africa, sweet potatoes are often eaten as a side dish.

In East Asia, roasted sweet potatoes are a popular street food. In China, sweet potatoes, typically yellow cultivars, are baked in a large iron drum and sold as street food during winter. In Korea, sweet potatoes are roasted in a drum can, baked in foil or on an open fire, typically during winter.

Sweet potato soup, served during winter, consists of boiling sweet potato in water with rock sugar and ginger. In Fujian cuisine and Taiwanese cuisine, sweet potato is often cooked with rice to make congee. Sweet potato greens are also a common side dish in Taiwanese cuisine, often boiled or sautéed and served with a garlic and soy sauce mixture, or simply salted before serving. In northeastern Chinese cuisine, sweet potatoes are often cut into chunks and fried, before being drenched into a pan of boiling syrup.

In some regions of India, sweet potato is roasted slow over kitchen coals at night and eaten with some dressing, while the easier way in the south is simply boiling or pressure cooking before peeling, cubing and seasoning for a vegetable dish as part of the meal. In some parts of India, fresh sweet potato is chipped, dried and then ground into flour; this is then mixed with wheat flour and baked into chapattis. Between 15% and 20% of sweet potato harvest is converted by some Indian communities into pickles and snack chips.

In Pakistan, sweet potato is cooked as a vegetable dish and also with meat dishes like chicken, mutton or beef. The ash roasted sweet potatoes are sold as a snack and street food in Pakistani bazaars especially during the winter months.

In Sri Lanka, they are used mainly for breakfast. They are boiled served with sambal or grated coconut or as a supplementary curry dish for rice.

Sweet potatoes have also been used in the traditional diet of the Maldives. The leaves are finely chopped and used in dishes as regular greens.

In Japan, boiling, roasting and steaming are the most common cooking methods. They are also used in vegetable tempura. But they are also baked and caramelized in syrup as a dessert.

In Korean cuisine, sweet potato starch is used to produce cellophane noodles. Sweet potatoes are also boiled, steamed, or roasted, and young stems are also eaten. Pizza restaurants such as Pizza Hut and Domino's are using sweet potatoes as a popular topping. Another popular Korean side dish is Korean candied sweet potato, which is made by deep frying sweet potatoes that were cut into big chunks and coating them with caramelized sugar.

In Malaysia and Singapore, sweet potato is often cut into small cubes and cooked with taro and coconut milk to make a sweet dessert. A favorite way of cooking sweet potato is deep frying slices of sweet potato in batter, and served as a tea-time snack. At homes, sweet potatoes are usually boiled. The leaves of sweet potatoes are usually stir-fried with garlic or with dried shrimps.

In the Philippines, sweet potatoes are an important food crop in rural areas. They are often a staple among impoverished families, as they are easier to cultivate and cost less than rice. The tubers are boiled or baked in coals and may be dipped in sugar or syrup. Young leaves and shoots are eaten fresh in salads with shrimp paste or fish sauce. They can be cooked in vinegar and soy sauce and served with fried fish. The stew obtained from boiling the tops is purple-colored, and is often mixed with lemon as juice. Sweet potatoes are also sold as street food in suburban and rural areas. Fried sweet potatoes coated with caramelized sugar and served in skewers are a popular afternoon snacks. Bread made from sweet potato flour is also gaining popularity.

In Indonesia, sweet potatoes are frequently fried with batter and served as snacks with spicy condiments, along with other kinds of fritters such as fried bananas, tempeh, tahu, breadfruits, or cassava. In the mountainous regions of West Papua, sweet potatoes are the staple food among the natives there. Using the bakar batu way of cooking rocks that have been burned in a nearby bonfire and are thrown into a pit lined with leaves. Layers of sweet potatoes, an assortment of vegetables and pork are piled on top of the rocks. The top of the pile is insulated with more leaves, creating a pressure of heat and steam inside which cooks all food within the pile after several hours.

In Vietnamese cuisine sweet potatoes are commonly cooked with a sweetener such as corn syrup, honey, sugar, or molasses.

Young sweet potato leaves are also used as baby food particularly in Southeast Asia and East Asia.

In the United States, Sweet potato mash is served as a side dish, often at Thanksgiving dinners or with barbecue. Candied sweet potatoes are also a side dish served in Thanksgiving consisting mainly of sweet potatoes prepared with brown sugar, marshmallows, maple syrup, molasses, orange juice, marron glacé, or other sweet ingredients. Sweet potato casserole is another side dish of mashed sweet potatoes topped with a brown sugar and pecan topping.

Sweet potato fries or chips are also a common dish and are made by julienning and deep frying sweet potatoes, in the fashion of French fried potatoes.

In New Zealand, Māori traditionally cooked the sweet potato in an earth oven. This is still a common practice when there are large gatherings. But sweet potatoes are an integral part of roast meals all over New Zealand. They are served alongside such vegetables as potatoes and pumpkin and are generally prepared in a savory manner.

In northeastern Spain, it is traditional to serve roasted sweet potato, chestnuts and sweet wine. Sweet potato is also used to make cakes and to be eaten roasted in the oven.

In Peru, sweet potatoes are frequently served alongside ceviche. Sweet potato chips are also a commonly sold snack.

Dulce de batata is a traditional Argentinian, Paraguayan and Uruguayan dessert, which is made of sweet potatoes. It is a sweet jelly, which resembles a marmalade because of its color and sweetness but it has a harder texture, and it has to be sliced in thin portions with a knife as if it was a pie. It is commonly served with a portion of the same size of soft cheese on top of it.

In Italy, sweet potato is a traditional fall dish, boiled or roasted.

Just from typing all these amazing ways the world eats and enjoys sweet potatoes, I am getting the desire to enjoy the delicious sweet potato baking in my oven. Only if it would bake a bit faster!!.

Surely my favorite way to eat it is roasted in the oven until it has released the caramel, then I know it is ready, and yes, I eat the skin too!. I have learned my lesson and always use baking paper to not have to scratch the caramel from my baking dish.

What did you like the most from this article?, how do you enjoy sweet potatoes?. Let me know, I always enjoy reading your comments and feedback.

Thanks to my friend Ashley Lincoln for blessing me with a delicious massive dark orange sweet potato, it is so big, it will feed my entire family.

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