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THE FOOD WE ATE. 10. Patat/sweet potato/kumara [10min read]

First, let me boast about my garden harvest.

<— After a year of plant-and-neglect, this is half of my 6kg haul from two medium-sized flower pots. I have now put down four pots! Should be ready to start harvesting next Autumn. For me this is my winter comfort food, especially the dessert.

My first memory of this edible delight is a black charred thing that someone rolled out of a fire one cold winter evening when I was still at primary school. The Marais home often had an outside fire going in winter and it was a night time magnet for the Dale Street kids. I tended to hang out at their place directly opposite our house – three of the Marais boys were my contemporaries. They were an essential part of our street gang.

When split open, the black carbon entity looked interesting, nay, even inviting. The smell was attractive, flesh colour was a yellowish-beige, and the sweet taste of the baked flesh drew us back to the evening fires with our own raw patats in hand. A blob of butter in the central cut of the patat was exquisite.

A dessert spoon in the pocket was an essential extra that we brought along to scoop the roasted dessert off the burnt exterior. Besides the joy of a fire, my first cooking experiences had started, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Foil wrap appeared in later life, and our children were spared the not-so-edifying first sight of a piece of charred veg on their plate for lunch or dinner. At least the Maoris steam-cooked their kumaras in volcanically heated, steaming waters or in their water-based earth steam ovens, the hangis.

Like potatoes, the patat grows underground, but they are actually members of the morning glory group. The Convolvulaceae Ipomoea batatas, a dicotyledonous, herbaceous perennial vine is a Googled mouthful of words for the humble sweet potato [SP]; but in there is the South American original name of the “batatas” – the South African “patat”. Of interest is that the ancient Peruvian name for one variety was “kumar” – a likely source of New Zealand Maori “kumara”. How those ancient canoe marathoners kept the kumara alive on those incredible Polynesian sea trips is anyone’s guess. It says something for what a hardy plant/veg it is.

The blackened and charred vege treat has spread around the globe. It is often still roasted, baked, steamed, chipped and fried, ground into flour…… It is stewed, mashed, burgered [that’s with an “r” and one “g”] and can be used as a dessert, my favourite. I eat them fire-roasted, boiled, microwave-steamed or as an after-dinner sweet.

I prefer the red SP . It has such a rich maroon colour with a few streaks of red in the pale flesh. I prefer its texture when cooked. It’s also not as sweet as other varieties. It is said to be better for diabetics than potatoes.

It has to be one of the simplest veges to grow. My 6kg harvested bucketful was raised in a couple of medium-sized flower pots. In the ground, they like heat/sunlight, and they will control the weeds with the ground cover they provide. The leaves may be eaten as a form of spinach – I can’t say that I’ve done that, but I will give it a go with my next plantings which are already sprouting using the rootings from the plants recently dug up after nearly a year in the pot. It’s a plant-and-forget thing which will need occasional watering. They seem to thrive on neglect and poor soil. Sounds like my kinda plant! I wish the whole garden were the same!

When boiled/steamed or microwaved, it goes with other veges in many dishes. I love the colours when served with squash – must be gem squash, of course; butternut squash or pumpkin; peas; mash potato; and a generous grating of nutmeg over the lot. I loved it with boerewors [farmer’s sausage], braais and fried fish, especially snoek [Barracuda]; and of course with frikkadels, both the fish and meat varieties. Throw in some sweet yellow rice [with sugar and saffron, or the poor man’s version with turmeric] and maybe stick cinnamon, and butter if you must!], and, honestly, I salivate to excess just writing about it.

It’s a bit like lovemaking. Oops, can’t go there!

So how about a decent dessert after the mains? It’s simple as frying chips – can anything be more straightforward than that?

With half of my 6kg harvest, I decided to slow-cook my” stoof” patat [stewed SP]. Slow-cookers are quite cheap these days; one can also use a rice cooker for a smaller amount.

<— I cut the raw patat into slices about a centimetre thick. Microwav

e about 10 mins and the skin can be easily stripped off the patat.       —>                      

The slices are then layered on the bottom of the cooker, and brown sugar is sprinkled over the slices. [Information for diabetics: Ordinary sugar has GI 65; Coconut sugar has a low GI at 35; agave sugar = 15; and yacon is an amazing 1.0. I used agave sugar, and it tasted like the real thing].

Layer the patat slices and the sugar – maybe three layers worth. You can also add grated coconut to each layer – I don’t. Add water to just cover the slices and be generous with the cinnamon sticks. Once again, I use the KISS principle; nothing else is added. Put the slow cooker on high and forget it for about three hours. Check the sweetness and add more sugar to your preference. Continue the slow cook for another two hours or so.

Less time needed with a slow cooker or on a stove top. When ready, a fork should easily pass through a piece of the SP. The slices will usually break into smaller pieces.

When soft enough, dessert is ready. The sauce should be slightly runny. Now just add custard. I find the boxed low-fat custard at the supermarket is an easy solution or make your own – there are just-add-water powders out there which will do, but maybe add milk instead for a richer flavour. I use oat milk – usually organic here in Australia. Most soya is GM these days.

OK, that’s enough of the health food stuff! It’s time to tuck in. There you are.     –> Patat/SP/kumara is an ideal winter food/dessert. Try it when the winter chills are around. Or summer for that matter. Even the healthy versions taste goood!


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