Opinion: Why Britain fell in love with the sweet potato

Sweet potatoes are big business. Over the past decade, according to Kantar Worldpanel, demand for sweet potatoes in the UK has quadrupled. For a while, they mostly came from warmer climes but in 2015, farmers in Kent pulled out all the stops to put a UK-grown crop in the supermarkets.

That same year, the Office for National Statistics included the sweet potato in the illustrative shopping basket it uses to measure inflation. And last year, consumer research showed most people would opt for a sweet potato side dish over a straight-up potato one. Yet most of us have only begun to plumb those tender, sweet, soulful depths.

First up, sweet potatoes don’t have to be orange. Those Kentish farmers chose to cultivate the familiar red-skinned, flame-fleshed variety, often known as yams in the southern US. But if you have a Caribbean market stall or an Asian grocer nearby, you can probably get hold of something different. There are purple sweet potatoes, white sweet potatoes, yellow sweet potatoes. With the variations in colour come differences in texture, density, flavour and uses.

The food website Saveur has a tantalising guide to 16 kinds, from the tan-skinned hannah, which bakes into a soft, dry yellow, perfect for mashing, to korean purple, with its white flesh and magenta exterior yielding a subtle chestnut flavour.

Sweet potato fries or baked wedges are, it would appear, the thing that has pushed the root veg into the mainstream.

There is, however, more to sweet potatoes than chips. The Mississippi-born chef Brad McDonald, in his book Deep South, does a smoked pork belly served with a spiced sweet potato casserole topped with pecan praline and Italian meringue. Yotam Ottolenghi mixes them, roasted, with pickled onion, coriander and goat’s cheese as an accompaniment to fish or chicken. Vegans and “clean-eaters”, meanwhile, routinely tout the virtues of the sweet potato just as much as any meat eater.

Depending, of course, on what you load them up with, sweet potatoes are a healthier option than conventional potatoes. They are lower in carbohydrates and calories, and higher in fibre and vitamin A. Their sweetness marries with a host of aromatics – from paprika to cinnamon, thyme to cumin and coriander. And their creaminess suggests all manner of pairings: sour cream, salsa verde, miso or chilli.

Mostly though, it’s best to remember that the sweet potato doesn’t need much doing to it to be perfect. It is one of those culinary failsafes, a foil to every kitchen foible. There are vendors in Japan who park vans on street corners and belt out: “Ishi yaki imo”, which means stone-baked sweet potato. That is all they are selling.

One bite of the piping-hot tat wrapped in newspaper and you’re sold. You’re going home to rustle up more of the same in a hot, hot oven. Slow-roasting the potato in its skin means the moisture is retained and the sugars in the skin caramelise. As savoury as it is sweet, this is a whole warming meal for cold hands on a winter’s day. And that’s something to sing about.

Dale Berning Sawa is a French-South-African freelance writer based in London, covering culture, food, health, tech and work.

First published in The Guardian